The First Book
1-1 | The subject now being offered is yoga.
Atha=now; yoga=of yoga; anusasanam=explanation.
There are two important keys to understanding this first aphorism.
One is that these teachings offer no mere debate on the subject.
Patanjali is giving us his own realized wisdom.
The second key lies in that insignificant-seeming word, “now.”
Now suggests that there has been another dissertation, prior to this,
on a subject fundamental to the study of yoga. That subject is the
first of the three basic philosophies of ancient India. But even that
word, philosophies, is inadequate here, suggesting as it does the mere
love of wisdom: philos (love), and sophia (wisdom). But what is
taught in every one of those so-called “philosophies” of India, rather,
is wisdom itself. If we call them, “philosophies,” it is simply because
the English language offers no adequate substitute for the word.
Even the word, system, which has often been applied to these yoga
aphorisms (or sutras), is misleading. For Patanjali offered no particular
system for achieving anything. Rather, he was saying, “These are
the stages through which every truth seeker must travel, regardless of
his religion, if he would achieve union with the Infinite.”
Of the ancient “philosophical systems” in India, then, these three
were basic: Shankhya, Yoga, and Vedanta. The purpose of Shankhya,
the first of them, was to persuade people of the uselessness of seeking
fulfillment through the physical senses, since our physical bodies are
not our true Self.
I won’t go into that system carefully here, since the subject of
this book is yoga. Still, it is important for students of yoga to have a
right understanding of the entire subject. All the three philosophies
are, in fact, aspects of a single truth. Shankhya offers the whys of
the spiritual search; yoga, the hows; and Vedanta, the what. In other
words, why is it important to renounce attachment to the world?;
how can we direct all our energy toward the heights?; and what to
expect, once our energy and consciousness have become one-pointedly
Why should we—why should everyone—embrace the spiritual
search? This is, essentially, the subject of Shankhya. The answer is
partly that we, as earthly beings, are divided in two. We are drawn
upward, toward soul happiness, but at the same time downward, toward
our past worldly habits.
There is also a universal, twofold impulse that guides us all: We
all want to escape pain; and we all want also to find happiness. These
basic needs manifest themselves on different levels of refinement—
octaves, we might call them. At the highest octave, the desire to escape
pain is seen as the true devotee’s intense desire to shake off the
delusion of separateness from God, and to unite the soul with Him.
On a lower octave, those twin desires are experienced as a longing
for worldly fulfillment, and a wish to avoid the disappointment
that accompanies such fulfillment. What do I mean by worldly fulfillment?
I mean three things, basically: ambition for money; the
desire to escape worldly pain through drugs or alcohol; and the drive
for sexual satisfaction. These are the three main delusions under
which humanity labors as if under a yoke. True fulfillment can never
be found in any of them. Subsidiary to those basic delusions, but
disappointing nevertheless, are the desire for power; for fame; for
popularity; for emotional excitement and emotional fulfillment; and
for all kinds of ego-satisfaction.
There is a philosophical explanation for those disappointments.
Underlying the restlessness at the surface of the ocean are its calm
depths. Underlying our rippling thoughts, similarly, is the underlying
vastness of God’s consciousness. Waves, regardless how high they
rise, cannot affect the over-all ocean level, for each wave is offset by
an equally deep trough. Similarly, our emotions have no effect on
our deeper consciousness, for every emotional high is balanced by a
comparable emotional low.
Creation is ruled by the law of duality. For every up there is a
down; for every plus there is a minus. Every pleasure is balanced by
an equal displeasure; every joy, by an equal sorrow. The greater the
pleasure, the more intense, also, is the displeasure. The greater the
happiness, the greater, also, is its comparable unhappiness.
Test these truths in your own life. Isn’t it true that all your pains
and pleasures, your sorrows and joys, are being constantly evened
out sooner or later by their opposites? The pleasure of a “night on
the town” is erased by the discomfort of a hangover. Less obvious
“binges”—an evening of good, clean fun, for example; or the fulfillment
of a long-awaited meeting; or the thrill of a long-desired kiss;
or the satisfaction of promotion at work; or the long-delayed egofulfillment
of a significant award—all these are inevitably balanced
by their opposites. The one follows the other as the night the day.
Only a little reflection should suffice to convince you of this
truth. Unfortunately, the mind is restless, and lights only briefly, like
a fly, upon any given object of contemplation. If you would gain the
benefits of contemplation (yoga), and of spiritual realization (Vedanta),
the first necessity is stillness of mind. And that stillness is
the fruit of yoga practice. Without yoga, there can be no true understanding
of Shankhya. Moreover, without some inkling of Vedantic
realities there can come no true understanding of either Shankhya
or yoga. It may seem like a hopeless puzzle. To achieve perfection
in any one of the three philosophies, perfection is needed in all of
them! The three philosophies are interconnected.
Without some awareness, however slight, of the need for yoga,
there will be no incentive to practice it. And awareness of this need
is provided by Shankhya. Indeed, most people stumble through life
heedlessly, not knowing why they keep on suffering; not knowing
why fulfillments are never permanent; and never realizing why their
happiness flickers away even as they gaze at it. Indeed, happiness
flickers before their eyes like a candle flame, burning them briefly
even as they extinguish it. The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote:
“My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!”
Light? Yes. But lovely? Perhaps for a moments or two—but then?
Accompanying that light, moreover, is always the menace of approaching
darkness. And beside every pleasure, beating its wings to
get in, hovers the moth of sadness.
Yes, it all seems so simple, so obvious! And yet, people wander
for countless incarnations before they become willing even to consider
the perfectly simple and completely obvious truth of their existence!
How many incarnations do they wander? Let me not frighten
you by answering that question! Indeed, how long each person
clings to his delusions is nobody’s choice but his own.
But if you really want to understand Patanjali’s yoga aphorisms,
you must be ready to ponder at least a little the underlying truths
of the Shankhya philosophy. For even the oft-quoted aphorism of
Shankhya “Ishwar ashiddha, (God is not proved),” is an invitation to
go beyond the intellect, and realize truth intuitionally, on a superconscious