The Yoga Sutras
In my discussion of the Bhagavad Gita (see Gita page) I mentioned that there are differing interpretations of that important scripture. The same is true of Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Like commentaries on the teachings of Jesus, the commentaries on the Yoga Sutras vary widely. The estimated date of composition usually ranges between 500 B.C.E. to 200 B.C.E. According to one view, the Yoga Sutras were composed in the second or third century (C.E.) and were not written by Pantanjali at all. For the purposes of this short essay, I accept Pantanjali as the author and the date of composition as having been closer to 500 B.C.E. than 200 B.C.E. I rely on the commentary of B.K.S. Iyengar whose work Light on the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali I take to be the landmark exegesis of the Yoga Sutras.
The Yoga Sutras are divided into four padas (parts or quarters).
“First and foremost, Pantanjali outlines the method of surrender of oneself to God.”
Union with Isvara (God) [Mark 4:29]
These sutras comprise Samadhi pada. The first sutra is very much like the opening to the Gospel of Thomas: “These are the hidden sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Judas Thomas the Twin recorded.” The first sutra simply states:
With prayers for divine blessings, now begins an exposition of the sacred art of yoga. (1:1)
Thus the first teaching in the Yoga Sutras is the second sutra and it is Pantanjali’s definition of yoga:
Yoga is the cessation of the disturbances [movements] of consciousness. (1:2)
In yogic mysticism consciousness is subdivided into three parts: mind (manas), intellect (buddhi), and ego (ahamkara). These disturbances or fluctuations of consciousness are due to its contact with the external world (prakriti) which is made up of three components (gunas). They are solidity (tamas), dynamism (rajas) and luminosity (sattva),
Jesus subdivides conscious awareness into two houses, the house of the spirit and the house of the ego/demon. Both houses are inside the human body (the kshreta of the Bhagavad Gita) and struggle for control of the intellect (the sword). These two compartments directly parallel the ahamkara (ego) and atma (Universal Spirit) in yogic mysticism: “the two opposite poles in man.”
Jesus likens conscious awareness to a lamp:
22The eye is the body’s lamp. It follows that if your eye is clear, your whole body will be flooded with light. 23If your eye is clouded, your body will be shrouded in darkness. If then, the light within you is darkness, how dark that can be! (Q/Matthew 6:22)
Similarly, in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna (10:11), “Out of mere compassion for them, I, abiding in their hearts, destroy the darkness [in them] of ignorance, by the Luminous Lamp of Knowledge.” Pantanjali described this kind of knowledge as “pure and infinite,” as opposed to the “knowable, finite” knowledge (Yoga Sutras 4:31). Iyengar has put it this way: “When the light of the soul blazes, the yogi does not need mind or intelligence to develop knowledge.”
The Samadhi pada of Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras is directed toward highly advanced yogis. They are rare people for whom this set of sutras is designed to help them remain in union with God and maintain their advanced state of intelligence and wisdom.
Or, the citta [consciousness] may be restrained by profound meditation upon God and total surrender to him. (1:23)
God is the Supreme Being, totally free from conflicts, unaffected by actions and untouched by cause and effect. (1:24)
God is the unexcelled seed of all knowledge. (1:25)
God is the first, foremost and absolute guru, unconditioned by time. (1:26)
The final four sutras of Samadhi pada are equally important and end with a warning that even the light of wisdom itself must be relinquished:
When consciousness dwells in wisdom, a truth bearing state of direct spiritual perception dawns. (1:48)
This truth-bearing knowledge is first-hand, intuitive knowledge. (1:49)
A new life begins with this truth-bearing light. Previous impressions are left behind and new ones are prevented. (1:50)
When that new light of wisdom is also relinquished, seedless samadhi dawns. (1:51)
Iyengar explains seedless samadhi this way:
…citta dissolves and no residue of impressions remains. All residual impressions, the thinking faculty and the feelings of “I” are extinguished without trace and become universal. The soul alone manifests and blazes without form, in pristine clarity.
Jesus, too, advocated letting go of the material things of life and, as I discuss at length in my book, his parables and aphorisms contain many examples of this advice. What needs to be emphasized here is that Pantanjali’s argument includes relinquishing even the fruits of the culmination of one’s spiritual development. They, too, must be surrendered to God, and Jesus makes the exact same argument. We find this striking parallel in the following parable—75 Seed and Harvest:
26And he said thus is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed upon the earth, 27and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and be lengthened, how he knows not; 28Of itself the earth brings forth fruit, first a shoot, then a head, then mature grain on the head. 29When the fruit offers itself, [he] immediately sends for the sickle, for the harvest has come.
This important parable goes back to Jesus and it is only preserved in the Gospel of Mark. In my book I devote Chapter Eighteen entirely to plying its secrets. It was the opening of verse 29 that unlocked this parable for me. The problem has long been the inadequate translation of this phrase as “But when the grain ripens…”
When, finally, I went to the original Greek, it became clear that the intended meaning is an offering—a surrendering—of the final, fully mature spirit to God:
In the teachings of Jesus, fully ripened grain, wheat, grapes, and figs operate as metaphors for the fully mature spirits of people that have labored at length to cultivate their God-given spiritual seed. Furthermore, as I discuss in the book, in this parable the fruit has succeeded in maturing even though surrounded by weeds. Isvara Pranidana is the fifth and most important niyama (internal ethical observance) of Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras. In English it means surrendering oneself totally to God. This, in my view, was the original meaning of the harvest metaphor used by Jesus. His use of the phrase, “And when the fruit offers itself,” in a field in which it is surrounded by weeds is an extraordinary and sublime use of everyday imagery to illustrate the message of self-surrender.
The Path to Union with Isvara (God) [Thomas 2]
These sutras comprise Sadhana pada. There are differing views on who Pantanjali is addressing. I agree with Iyengar that Pantanjali is addressing both novices and highly evolved yogis. It opens with this sutra:
Burning zeal in practice, self-study and study of scriptures, and surrender to God are the acts of yoga. (2:1)
This teaching represents the Three Great Paths: karma (action) yoga, jnana (knowledge) yoga, and bhakti (devotion) yoga. This section of the Yoga Sutras specifies the five klesas (afflictions):
The five afflictions which disturb the equilibrium of consciousness are: ignoranceor lack of wisdom, ego, pride of the ego or the sense of “I,” attachment to pleasure, aversion to pain, fear of death and clinging to life. (2:3)
It defines egoism:
Egoism is the identification of the seer with the instrumental power of seeing. (2:6)
Pantanjali’s definition is wonderfully, humorously and even gruesomely illustrated in this famous teaching of Jesus:
1You see the sliver in your friend’s eye, but you do not see the timber that is in your own eye. 2When you take the timber out of your own eye, then you will see well enough to take the sliver out of your friend’s eye. (Thomas 26:1-2)
This section of the Yoga Sutras defines prakriti (nature) and its three constituent gunas (2:18, 2:19), further discusses avidya (spiritual ignorance (2:24, 2:25, 2:26), and lays out the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga:
Moral injunctions (yama), fixed observances (niyamas), posture (asana or poses), regulation of breath (pranayama), internalization of the senses toward their source (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and absorption of consciousness in the self (samadhi), are the eight constituents of yoga. (2:29)
These eight constituents of yoga form a path for the sadhaka (yoga practitioner) to find union with God—especially dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. In his book The Third Jesus: The Christ we cannot Ignore, Deepak Chopra challenges us “To delve into scripture and prove that a map [of Jesus] to enlightenment is there.”
For the remainder of Sadhana pada, Pantanjali goes on to address the first five limbs of yoga in considerable detail. He defines the five niyamas (internal ethical imperatives) in this sutra:
Cleanliness, contentment, religious zeal [discipline and sustained practice], self-study and surrender of the self to the supreme Self or God are the niyamas. (2:32)
In my book I devote Chapter Seven entirely to the conspicuous parallels of the five niyamas with the teachings of the historical Jesus.
Bypassing the Fruits of One’s Work (Be Passersby) [Thomas 42]
These sutras comprise Vibhuti pada. In the previous Resources page on the Bhagavad Gita, I mentioned how, in the Mahabharata (Book 12.317 :6-7) when Yajnavalkya describes the yoga of the Vedas he talks about the “eight yoga attributes.” I discuss this in my book in Chapter Seven as well, and point out that these eight powers are not the eight limbs of yoga but rather advanced powers—siddhis—of highly evolved yogis. Yajnavalkya happened to mention three of them: Anima, Laghima, Prapti, and I go on to discuss how Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras also mentions them—although he lists many more of these powers in 43 separate references—whereas Yajnavalkya mentions just eight. Anima is the power to make oneself infinitely small (Yoga Sutras 3.46), Laghima is the power to make oneself weightless (Yoga Sutras 3.43), and Prapti is the power to obtain knowledge of everything (Yoga Sutras 3.50, 3.53, and 3.54).
What I emphasize both in the book and the previous Resources page on the Bhagavad Gita, is that Yajnavalkya’s discourse about these powers is set in a positive context of admiration, whereas the opposite is so in the case of the Bhagavad Gita and Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The Vibhuti pada discusses the properties of yoga and the art of integration (samyama) through the path of concentration, meditation and absorption, but the majority of this pada discusses how 43 incredible siddhis come naturally, as Iyengar explains, “to a yogi who has integrated his body, mind and soul.”
These attainments are impediments to samadhi, although they are powers in active life. (3:38)
By destruction of the seeds of bondage and the renunciation of even these powers, comes eternal emancipation. (3:51)
Iyengar further elaborates:
Indifference to all supernatural experiences destroys the seed of sorrows and leads the yogi to live in his own self. If he does not spurn them he will be caught in the web of subtle afflictions, and may find it very difficult to come out of them.
This soteriological (salvation doctrine) trait is also present in the Bhagavad Gita. In Chapter 14 Krishna compares the three forms of prakriti (nature)—sattva, rajas, and tamas: 14.17: “From sattva arises wisdom, and greed from rajas; miscomprehension, delusion and ignorance arise from tamas” (4:17). Yet even that sattvatic wisdom—which arises from “good action” (4:16)—causes “happiness,” and happiness becomes an attachment just like the “greed” and “desire” that attach to rajas and the “incomprehension” that attaches to tamas (4:7-8).
Thus the soteriology of both the Bhagavad Gita and Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras holds that only through the renunciation of the fruits of all of our actions can we break free from the attachments that bind the spirit. This I take to be the original ancient basis of yoga practice as opposed to its more utilitarian and materialistic evolutionary phase reflected in the yoga of the Vedas.
In The Interior Castle, Saint Teresa warns about the danger of being constantly immersed in the “intoxicating” effects of these powers (IC.6.VII.16). Iyengar warns us that this danger is always present:
Is this the end? Are we there yet? No. There remains the ego, the self, the known self, the impersonator of the soul. He is the last actor to leave the stage. He lingers even for the very final hand clap of applause.
Similarly, the message behind Jesus’ teaching 12 Knowing the Danger is a warning that we must anticipate where the ego will try to break into the “house” of the spirit—again. When the War of the Houses begins in 90 The Planted Weeds, we find that the demon/ego has already broken into the house of the spirit when the seeker is unaware (“in the night”). I take the first stages of marveling (concentration and meditation) to be, not surprisingly, about developing the defensive intellectual skills of armament mentioned in 12 Knowing the Danger (“arm himself before they enter”) and fortification mentioned in 78 Fortified High on a Hill. Both skills are necessary to defend against the seed of bondage (Pantanjali), the “house” of the spirit from further incursions by the robbers of the ego( Jesus), and the same house-thieving Asurikas Krishna describes in the Bhagavad Gita (16:4-7, 20-21).
Finally, and what needs to be reemphasized, is that Jesus, Pantanjali and the Gita are not referring to dangers at the outset of the quest for the kingdom. Rather they mean those dangers that accrue to the increased powers of the practitioner along the way.
Living in Kaivalya (the Kingdom) [Thomas 14:2; 1Q/Luke 10:4-11 = Matthew 10:7, 10b, 12-14; Mark 6:7-13 = Matthew 10:1, 8-10a, 11 = Luke 9:1-6]
These sutras comprise Kaivalya pada. The yogi has been freed from the four aims of life: dharma (religious duty), artha (earning a livelihood), kama (joy of life), and moksa (liberation), and from the gunas of prakriti (nature). In kaivalya the yogi lives in a positive state of life. Iyengar explains that in Kaivalya the yogi moves in the world and does day-to-day work dispassionately, without becoming involved in it.”
Pantanjali refers to kaivalya as a way of living in the world. He speaks about the way enlightened yogis live in the world and serve humanity by sharing their wisdom.
There is a tendency to associate the renunciate of Pantanjali’s eightfold path with the recluse who conquers the temptations of the flesh simply by rejecting the civilized world and dwelling in places where no temptations exist. Of all discussions on how to belong to the world, act in it and yet remain unsullied, pride of place is often given to the debate between Lord Krishna and Arjuna on the eve of battle. There, Krishna makes it plain that action cannot be avoided; because inaction is also action; and that selfish actions, and attachments to their fruits, lead to ensnarement.
In this final pada of the Yoga Sutras,Pantanjali distinguishes between yoga’s eighth limb samadhi (the attainment of the kingdom) and kaivalya—living in the world and working day-to-day dispassionately. The Bhagavad Gita describes this kind of work in the world as the “skill in action” of the yogi
The yogi’s actions are free from attachment to its fruits, as is the seeker who offers those fruits to God in the teachings of Jesus (see above 75 Seed and Harvest). John Dominic Crossan has, in my view, succinctly summarized what Jesus had to say about how to act in the world to those who had found the kingdom:
You are healed healers, he said, so take the kingdom to others, for I am not its patron and you are not its brokers. It is, was, and always will be available to any who want it. Dress as I do, like a beggar, but do not beg. Bring a miracle and request a table. Those you heal must accept you into their homes.