In Sir Richard Attenborough's
film Gandhi, one poignant scene fails to leave the
memory. The setting is somewhere in eastern India,
just after the nation achieved independence (1947).
Rampant rioting had broken out between Hindus and
Muslims, and the worst face of humanity, seething
with hatred, was visible everywhere. In this moment
of madness, Mahatma Gandhi entered the city. We
are shown how the violent perpetrators threw down
their weapons at his feet. All the while, the great
Mahatma, weak and frail, did not utter a word, but
lay still, eyes alert and open, peacefully on a
cot. His presence merely was reason enough for the
arsonists to surrender their arms, without any residual
This deeply symbolic episode
reminds one of the immortal words of Patanjali:
"When an individual is firmly
established in non-violence (ahimsa), all beings
who come near him also cease to be hostile."
Patanjali is the author of the
de facto text of yoga - 'The Yoga Sutra.'
A sutra literally means a thread
and according to the medieval saint Vallabhacharya:
"A sutra is a string binding together many
gems in a necklace."
The Padma Purana defines a sutra
"A sutra should have few
alphabets (alpa-akshara), an unambiguous meaning,
be full of essence (sara-yukta), said only after
considering all arguments for and against it, infallible
and without blemish."
Patanjali's text is made up of
195 such sutras, characterized by brevity and conciseness
(laghuta), giving rise to a mnemonic scheme which
attempts to condense as much meaning as possible
into as few words as possible. Consider for example
"The pain (dukha) which
is yet to come is to be avoided." (2.16)
The crisp statement quoted above
is simple enough. It is however, loaded with profound
philosophical import, encapsulating within itself,
the entire karma theory and its subtle nuances.
This sutra implies that the fruits
of our former deeds have been exhausted by the suffering
we have already undergone. Therefore, nothing can
be gained by thinking about it. The pain we are
experiencing at the present moment has already passed
into the past, even as we are reading this. Hence,
it is only the sorrow which is to come in the future
that we can avoid, by ensuring the ethical purity
of the karma we are performing now.
Patanjali's scripture not only
provides yoga with a thorough and consistent philosophical
basis, but in the process, also clarifies many important
esoteric concepts (like karma), common to all traditions
of Indian thought.
Patanjali himself is believed
to be an incarnation of the serpent Ananta (Skt:
endless), well known in Indian mythology as the
thousand-headed naga who serves as a couch for Lord
Vishnu and is also the guardian of the world's treasures.
Desiring to teach yoga to the
world, he fell (pat) from heaven into the open palms
(anjali) of a woman, hence the name Patanjali.
His many heads signify omnipresence
and since yoga is a treasure trove par excellence
it is but natural that he be the one to disperse
it for the benefit of mankind.
The terse maxims making up Patanjali's
text are divided into four chapters, representing
a progressive succession on the path to enlightenment,
the last being aptly labeled 'Kaivalya Pada' or
the chapter of "liberation." Thus it covers
the entire spiritual path from novice to final nirvana.
Underlying the text is a strong ethical current,
and cultivation of a positive state of mind along
with virtuous conduct are both considered necessary
pre-requisites for success along the yogic path.
We have already seen, from the
example of Mahatma Gandhi, how the fragrance of
one deeply established in non-violence (ahimsa),
affects favorably those near him or her. This is
also echoed in the incident where the Buddha, when
confronted by a rampaging elephant, managed to pacify
the latter by just raising his right hand. This
gesture later came to be known as the Abhaya mudra
(posture of fearlessness).
Literally, the word himsa means
violence and the prefix 'a' negates it. Actually,
its essence runs deeper and connotes a complete
absence of a desire to harm others, directly or
Violence can be of three types:
a). Done by oneself
b). Got done by another
c). Approved when done by other.
Each of the above can again be
of the following kinds:
1). Violence because of greed,
for example killing of an animal for its meat and
2). Through anger, if we feel
the other has wronged us in some manner (krodha).
3). Through delusion (moha),
thinking for example that by sacrificing animals
in rituals we can acquire merit.
Ahimsa is mentioned as one of
the five basic ethical precepts, which must be first
cultivated for purifying and calming the mind, as
a stepping-stone towards ultimate enlightenment.
These five fundamental moral
instructions (2.30) are:
b). Satya (Truthfulness)
c). Asteya (Non-stealing): Not
coveting what rightfully belongs to another.
d). Brahmacharya (Celibacy)
e). Aparigraha (Non-hoarding
of material objects): A few people having control
over the majority of the world's resources leads
to unequal distribution. Someone may own several
empty mansions, even while there are many who do
not have a ceiling over their heads. Similarly,
godowns may be overflowing with grain even as people
die of starvation in many parts of the world.
Indeed, from a point of view,
all the five represent an injunction against some
sort of violence or the other (often even sex is
considered a violent act). No wonder, the Mahabharata
extols this virtue in a grand manner:
'Ahimsa is the greatest dharma.
Ahimsa is the highest self-restraint. Ahimsa is
the greatest charity (dana). Ahimsa is the highest
penance (tapas). Ahimsa is the highest sacrifice
(yajna). Ahimsa is the greatest fruit. Ahimsa is
the greatest friend and ahimsa is the highest happiness
(sukham).' (Anushasanparva: 116: 38-39)
Patanjali's is a far-sighted
vision of universal humanity; a perspective much
relevant to the world of today, torn apart as it
is by sectarian strifes. He clearly states that
the above practices are to be applied without the
limitations of social or geographic conditions or
any consideration of time and circumstance:
"These are universal and
great vows (maha-vrata). They must be practised
without any reservations as to species (jati), place,
time, or sense of duty." (2.31)
Again, for example, consider
the first vow of ahimsa. A fisherman may say that
he would kill nobody except fish, thus limiting
his violence to a particular species only. Or, another
would put it thus: I will not kill at a place of
pilgrimage," or, "I will not kill on the
day of Diwali since it is sacred," (time).
A kshatriya (warrior) may similarly justify killing
on a battlefield on grounds of duty. All of the
above are unacceptable to Patanjali.
These moral attitudes are meant
to bring our impulsive life under control. The desire
not to harm others is an essential ingredient in
cultivating a mental state recognizing the essential
unity underlying all living beings, leading towards
ultimate mystical union, envisaged as the final
goal of yoga.
The ethical precepts enumerated
above have all a social implication, i.e. they involve
a 'violence' perpetrated by one on another for selfish
gains. By helping us rechannel our powerful survival
instincts, these five practices enable us to outgrow
our "I-ness" which according to the eminent
philosopher Martin Buber is dependent on our encounters
with others. He calls such a relationship, based
solely on self-interest as "I-it". For him, it is desirable that such an engagement evolves into an
"I-Thou" involvement, which is a direct, non-purposive encounter.
In Buber's scheme, god is the ultimate thou (situated in our own
depths according to yoga).
After first helping us transcend
our ego (I-ness), by regulating our social interactions
through moral discipline, Patanjali next suggests
ways in which the psychophysical energy thus freed
can be further harnessed to take the yogi to the
If the first pentad of rules
gives a positive restraint to our relationship with
others, the following five (2.32), address our individuality,
finally detaching the yogi from the outside world,
situating him into his own, inner self:
1). Purification (shaucha)
2). Contentment (santosha)
3). Penance (tapas)
4). Self-Study of sacred texts
5). Surrender to God (Ishvara
"(Attempts towards) Physical
purification leads to disenchantment with one's
own body" (2.40). This is because however hard
we try to cleanse it, our bodily functions are bound
to generate impurity continually.
"Contentment leads to unsurpassed
"Tapas destroys impurity
and leads to fulfillment of the body and sense-organs"
(2.43). The sense organs and the body both depend
on the external world for their gratification. When
they are thus fulfilled, and have served their purpose,
the yogi has no attachment left for the world.
"Self-study leads to union
with the desired deity (ishta-devata)." (2.44)
Such an individual has no need for external aids
to achieve his spiritual purpose.
"Surrendering oneself wholly
to god leads to perfection of samadhi." (2.45)
Samadhi is a state where the yogi remains super
consciously absorbed, oblivious to the outside world.
Things however, are not simple.
There are many distractions on the path of yoga.
Patanjali suggests a solution which is almost poetic
in its simplicity, but awesome in its implications:
"When bothered by distractions,
opposing thoughts must be cultivated." (2.33)
thoughts means realizing that distractions such
as violence, greed etc, result only in pain and
On our way to yogic achievement,
we may be beseeched by tempting thoughts having
the power to deviate us. We can be enamored by a
corrupt neighbor, who has succeeded in amassing
a significant wealth, while we toil away with honesty
without any apparent reward. In such moments, it
is helpful to think about the extremely strong punishments
scriptures lay down for those acquiring money unethically.
This is not however, a negative
subjugation of mental cravings, but rather, a neutralization
of distractions by cultivating equally strong thoughts
and a healthy reflection that such actions eventually
lead to unhealthy consequences. This is the positive
impact of what Patanjali calls contrary thinking
"Loneliness is the way by
which destiny endeavors to lead man to himself."
- (Hermann Hesse)
"Loneliness vanishes completely
in the stillness." - (Paul Brunton)
Having successfully laid the
ethical foundation enjoined by Patanjali, the adept
is now poised towards the ultimate goal - liberation.
Patanjali however, doesn't denote this culmination
with conventional labels like 'moksha' or 'nirvana'.
He calls it 'kaivalya,' derived from the word 'keval',
This is the detached isolation
that those lucky amongst us feel in a crowd. Yoga
guru B.K.S. Iyengar describes it as an absolute
state of aloneness. It is living in constant communion
with a higher reality centered within our own selves
- the ultimate fulfillment of yogic practice.
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