This is the introduction to the Yoga-sutra translation and commentary by Acharya das
Namaste, and welcome.
So we’re going to begin a study of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The Yoga Sutra and its purpose is for self-realization. Our attempts to read and study this work is not from an academic perspective, but from a practitioner’s point of view.
As I mentioned, the goal of life is actually self-realization, but we live in a very difficult time. The modern consumer economic system, and of course its underpinnings – radical materialism, is based on a fallacy that ‘I’ am this body – this body which I am currently wearing, and the mind which I am using or utilizing.
This materialistic theory promotes then, the idea that happiness can be achieved, or found, through material or sensual experience. It therefore is promoting a complete engrossment in sensual stimulation and sensual gratification. The yoga system and the teachings of yoga are actually completely contrary to this point of view, so it’s very important from the onset for us to be able to understand that, in beginning this journey of yoga, we may be carrying with us a great deal of baggage associated with preconceived ideas and things which we’ve been caring for quite some time.
The reality is, that the path of materialism never actually ends well. The part of yoga offers an opportunity for great spiritual happiness and full spiritual enlightenment.
So, the Yoga Sutras are meant for this higher purpose – to actually experience the goal of human existence that is self-realization. And it is from this perspective or point of view, that I will be endeavoring to share my understandings and personal realizations in relation to this very well-known yoga text. The Yoga Sutra is actually a very ancient work, modern historians dated between about 1700 and 2500 years ago. They use historical methodologies, or trying to correlate… or looking for correlations in language and terms of usage, or by cross-referencing other works of what would be considered the same historical period, to try and ascertain the establishment of when the Yoga Sutra was first possibly written. But there are many academics that will also say that it is almost impossible to trace out when it was originally written by Patanjali.
The lineage to which I belong, we understand that it is far more ancient text than this, and I accept that point of view.
The word ‘Sutra’ refers to a style of written presentation that was meant to be extremely brief, and as pithy as possible. They had a saying, that the writers of sutras would be willing to forego having a child, if they could just clip one… I’ll use the word ‘syllable’, from a Sutra. So, the focus was to condense it a great deal.
It is rare to see a verb in most sutras – so they’re just kind of words within one sutra, or sloka, and the word ‘sutra’ itself literally means ‘a thread’. So, it’s like you’ve got these leaves, as it were, of just standalone things all threaded together on this thread, to form this genre, or category, of literature, or writing.
The Yoga Sutra is not actually a “how-to” manual, because it it lacks that degree of specificity and detail, of how to execute and carry out everything. And this points to how sutras were commonly used. It’s probably a good idea to think of a standalone sutra as being like a bullet point, and part of a long list of bullet point. So, if I can use the example of a teacher who may be teaching a class, and he has bullet-pointed outline from which he is going to speak. If you take the bullet points and you give them to a student, and the student is not very familiar with the subject, and they read the bullet points, they may not come to a very good, or developed, or mature understanding of what it is that the teacher was going to be teaching. So, it sort of points to this need of a teacher who will unpack and explain the meaning of these things.
So since ancient times it brings into focus the reality of how things were transmitted or taught in ancient times. It was through the relationship of guru and sishya. The spiritual teacher who was not just intellectually able to understand a subject, but had ideally realized and experienced the reality of what they were speaking of, who would then teach a student, and give them more detailed explanations of how things could be practiced; how things could or should be understood. And the fact that things were presented in a sutra, a very compressed form… it’s kind of like maximum amount of meaning in a minimum number of words. And in that, it was more easy to memorize and to be able to recite, and as one remembered or recited the sutras they would be able to recollect the teachings – the way in which the individual slokas or sutra was expanded upon by their teachers.
So because of that, all sutras required commentary to be able to understand. Attempting to read sutra without commentary, was considered a not very wise undertaking. In the study that we’ll be doing, I may frequently probably refer to the oldest-known commentary of the Yoga Sutra – so much so, that it’s seen to be actually quite intertwined with the Yoga Sutra – and it’s the commentary of Vyasa. Some of you may be familiar with this name in reference to the compiler of the Vedas – Veda Vyasa or Vyasadeva. It is accepted by almost all academics and that the Vyasa who wrote the oldest commentary on Yoga Sutra, was not the same Vyasadeva – the compiler of the Vedas.
In presenting the texts, my translation of them is not going to be a literal translation of the words contained in the Sutra, because that will be often unintelligible for most people, particularly if we’re not intimately schooled in the yoga philosophy, and some of the precepts and ideas that were taught since ancient Vedic times. So, I will fold into the translation some elements from commentary that will therefore impart a hopefully deeper meaning, and understanding, for those who would follow this.
In doing this, I have strictly tried to avoid any speculative interpretation. I have not really deviated from the teachings from our lineage, and the teachings that have been passed down for hundreds and thousands of years on the subject matter.
Another challenge in translating the Yoga Sutras, is that in English there are often no equivalent words to some of the terms used in Sanskrit, and therefore we’re going to be running into the problem of how to present a term, to make it so that it is understandable for a more Western audience.
There is the other problem also that in these texts there are often many references to concepts, or spiritual ideas, that we don’t see any equivalent of in the Western world, and so that becomes a little bit challenging for a person who is newly beginning an in-depth study of the yoga science. It’s probably one example…or I’ll give a couple of examples… like in English we have the word ‘ego’ which was used primarily and coined by Freud, and it’s a psychological term, although it is meant to indicate the actual ‘self’.
So the ancient understanding, is that I am an eternal spiritual entity or being, and I have got two coverings. One of those coverings contains a sheath called the ‘ahankara’ or the false ego – the false concepts of who we are. Like for instance, if I, looking in a mirror, see this body and go “Oh well I’m an older white male”, that is a false understanding of who I actually am.
I am an eternal spiritual being, and that is not something that is perceivable with a physical eyeball. It requires actual spiritual vision to see. So, while we may use the word ‘ego’, we will also be using the word ‘false ego’ – ego meaning the true self, and the false ego meaning the false conceptions of who we are.
Another reference is… and I really don’t like using, but I do sometimes… the word ‘soul’ – simply because it is a word that is deeply misunderstood, when it is used in the framework of, for instance, Christianity and most Western-type thinking. And the reason that it is difficult is, if you ask people to speak about the subject, hardly anyone can actually speak on the subject of the soul with any proficiency. People for instance declare that, “I have a soul” or “My soul”, and of course that opens up the question, “If you have a soul, what exactly is the soul, and who are you – the actual possessor of the soul?”
So you can see that, if you could follow that line of questioning, it I think makes it very clear that most people’s usage of the word ‘soul’ is a very vague sort of idea or concept. The Sanskrit terminology, that is used for the equivalent, is the ‘atma’. This word ‘atma’ literally means ‘the self’.
Patanjali is also, in the writing of the Sutra, speaking to a very knowledgeable audience. The foundational Vedic wisdom which underpins what it is that he is presenting, played a significant, if not dominant role, in the lives of the educated, and in common people alike, in ancient India. But an example of how he is speaking to a knowledgeable audience, is his choice of some of the terminology, which is actually quite deep, and may become a little bit complex for some people, and I will try and keep it as simple as possible.
But also, when he speaks about, for instance, the eight principle yoga ‘siddhis’, or mystical powers, he names the first one, and then just goes…the equivalent of, “etcetera”. So the fact that he speaks of lists sometimes, or he speaks of five particular things without naming what they are, are clear indications that he is speaking to people that already are well founded in the knowledge that he is speaking of.
What are some of these foundational truths that underpin the teachings of yoga, and what it was that Patanjali was presenting? Well, I think one of the important ones to understand – I’ve already referenced – is that you and I are eternal spiritual beings. This body that I am currently using or occupying, and the mind, which I am using, are not me – they are coverings. So these were referred to the individual, who is described by Patanjali as either ‘purusha’ or ‘drsta‘, which means ‘the seer’.
The coverings were called the sthula-sarira and the linga-sarira. The subtle body or subtle covering, was comprised of what was called the ahankara, or the false identity – the false concepts of who we are, then there is the intelligence or buddhi, and then there was the mind. So these were things that covered the pure spiritual being.
So we’ll be getting into these kind of things in more detail as we go forward, but there are probably a couple of other terms I’ll just mention here, that are frequently used. One is ‘prakrti‘ – referring to the manifestation as we see it and experience it, known as material nature. And the other one is the three gunas, or the three modes of material nature – the three qualities of material nature which pervade the entire material energy, and cause living beings to become drawn to different types of activity; to engage in different types of activity, and produces different types of outcomes.
But this is something that needs to be spoken of in some detail. So, one of the things I just want to warn… if I can use that word… warn people about. You know, we have this situation in the Western world now, where people like to speak about “My understanding” or “My interpretation” and “The way ‘I’ see things” and this sense of very strong and independent sort of thinking, or interpreting.
In the Vedic system, when people sought spiritual knowledge, they approached the process of learning from a platform of tremendous humility, and there was this recognition that, regardless of what I think I understand, I am confronted with serious limitations. And there is a limitation of the mind, and the way in which we become conditioned by different filters – social and cultural norms – where we’re often not really trained in actual discernment, or what was called ‘viveka‘.
So the role of the false ego – the ahankara – this covering of the living being, was to filter or alter our consciousness and perception of things, and to make it so that we lived what was fundamentally, an illusion.
There was the other reality that we were confronted with, and that is the four defects that are inherent in all mundane personalities. The first… and there are Sanskrit terms for all of these… the first, was the tendency to commit mistakes, and we must all honestly admit that we do have this tendency to commit mistakes. The second, was the propensity to be illusioned. You know it is possible for me to be deeply or highly illusioned about any one of a number of things. Magicians these days are known as the illusionists, meaning that they create these illusions where you see things and you’re seeing one thing, but actually something else entirely different is happening. The third defect was known as the tendency to cheat – vipralipsa. This unfortunate tendency that we have to cheat ourselves, but also to cheat others – knowingly or unknowingly, or in a conscious or an unconscious sort of way. And the fourth defect, was that our senses are by nature limited and imperfect, and so it doesn’t matter with even if you use very advanced technologies to enhance their capability, they have this underlying truth attached to the senses, or the sense organs themselves. And that is that they are limited and imperfect.
And so when we consider these four defects and the fact that I’m existing in this somewhat illusioned state – I mean the idea that I am the material body, and the way in which I relate to the world this way, and everybody else does, shows you the great degree to which we are covered by things, and why there is a need for someone who is not affected or influenced by these things – that we should approach such an individual to help us come to see the truth, or the reality of things.
And so, because of this, the spiritual journey was a journey of tremendous humility, and it really involved approaching those figures that are truly authoritative – authoritative meaning that they are profound authorities. And in the Vedic times, or culture rather, the three great authorities were considered: guru – and we’re talking about a self-realized spiritual teacher; shastra – these spiritual teachings that were considered beyond defect, and often now in written form; and previous saints, sadhus or rishi’s. So, this looking to authority was considered a really important part of the spiritual journey.
So again there are two things, one is ‘agama’, which Patanjali will speak about, which is the text or textual authorities, and the relationship between guru and shishya – of spiritual teacher and disciple.
As one proceeds on the spiritual path, we are seeking to see things in truth; to see things differently than we currently see them. And this change in the way of seeing things was a change in spiritual vision. It was actually considered in a gift, that when one actually develops gradually this gift of spiritual vision.
So the only other couple of things I’ll just add – one is that, although I’m not trained in the chanting of Sanskrit, I have nonetheless chanted the verses of Patanjali, which may be filled with defect from a technical perspective, but I have done this in order that they may be of some help to some of the people that are studying this Yoga Sutra. And then, before undertaking this study, I would like to offer my profound and humble pranams to my gurus, to our lineage, and to the Supreme.
om ajnana-timirandhasya jnananjana- salakaya caksur unmilitam yena tasmai sri-gurave namah
sri-caitanya-mano- bhistam sthapitam yena bhu-tale svayam rupah kada mahyam dadati sva- padantikam
sri krsna-caitanya prabhu-nityananda sri-advaita gadadhara srivasadi-gaura-bhakta-vrnda
om namo bhagavate Vasudevaya