vṛttayaḥ – activities of the mind, mental states; pañcatayyaḥ – fivefold (are); kliṣṭa – harmful, painful, distressful; ākliṣṭāḥ – not painful or distressful;
The activities of the mind are divided into five states and can be considered as harmful/painful or not harmful/painful (i.e. leading to further material entanglement or to spiritual enlightenment).
The translations, or English synonyms for this sūtra are: vṛttayaḥ which of course refers to the activities of the mind or the mental states; pañcatayyaḥ means the fivefold, kliṣṭa literally means harmful, painful, or distressful. It is followed by its opposite by placing the ‘a‘ sound in front of it – ākliṣṭāḥ meaning not painful, or not distressful.
Patañjali more or less dedicates this fifth sūtra through to the twelfth sūtra to discussing the nature of the vṛttis, following which he will dedicate something like three or four verses to discussing nirodha – the winding up, or the containing or confining.
So vṛttis or the mental fluctuations, give rise to actions or karma which literally means action; action which then binds the living being to material existence. We become bound for two principal reasons: one is that we become obliged to experience the consequences of our actions in the form of karma-phalam, which means the fruit of actions. But there is also this reality that when we engage in action, it causes impressions upon our mind that will give rise to additional activity, further binding the living being. So, this very vicious cycle of action and reaction is known as samsara.
Saṁsāra means this repeated cycle of birth and death that the living being becomes bound to when we become absorbed in material consciousness, and the way in which this occurs is very profound. When I engage in a particular activity, I am then bound to experience its results or consequences. Engaging in an activity also creates what in English is probably best described as a latent impression. There is an imprint upon the mind that will give rise in the future to a desire to either repeat this action in the same way or in another way, or to avoid an action that was performed. Either way, when one does that, they are again bound by the laws of karma, resulting in a further latent impression or saṁskāra being created.
The word saṁskāra is different from saṁsāra. Saṁskāra is used in a couple of different ways in the Vedas, and within the context of yogic teaching, it quite often refers to the latent impression that is stamped upon the mind or the consciousness of the living being. A good example is a story in the Bhāgavat Pūraṇa of Ajamila, a young man approaching adulthood, who had been raised in a very traditional Brahmin family, and had always been engaged in pious activity; his life being very regulated. He had gone off to collect paraphernalia for pūjā (worship) at the behest of his father, and while out in the forest he had heard a noise that drew him to explore, “What is this?” He came across a low-class individual who was drunk, and who was engaged in sexual activity with a prostitute.
Even though Ajamila had not seen or thought of anything like this in this lifetime, it immediately created a very deep effect on him. He later began to follow this woman around town whenever he saw her, eventually taking her in, as a maidservant in his house. And that was all done so that he could begin to engage in a sexual relationship with her, which, in the ancient Vedic culture was considered very degraded for somebody of his station in life. This of course led to a life where he became engaged in a limitless variety of very fallen and sinful activities in order to support his newly chosen lifestyle, as it were.
So how is it that someone who has not had this kind of exposure, who has lived a very spiritually directed or spiritually focused life, or at least a very pious life, can deviate or change track so easily? How can just one incident so completely capture a person’s mind and heart and take them on this really destructive course? It has largely to do with these latent impressions that are imprinted upon the consciousness and may arise within the mind at any time. We see numerous examples of this in different cultures, where suddenly somebody becomes exposed to something and they just set off in a whole new direction, and it is because of these past saṁskāras.
In this particular śloka, Vyāsa speaks about how one can perform activity that is more sattvic – in the mode of goodness, and this also leaves latent impressions, but the latent impressions are of a more sattvic nature. He submits that engaging in activities that are more increasingly sattvic is really what a yogi should be doing in order to set themselves up for success on the path of self-realization, and that when the citta – the consciousness, manifests its pure sattvic potential, then it becomes very much like the ātman. One of my spiritual teachers would often use the example of iron, which has the characteristics of being heavy, rigid, and cold. Yet if I take an iron rod and place it in an extremely hot fire, then eventually it will become red-hot and then white-hot, and when I remove it from the fire it is now manifesting many of the characteristics of fire itself. It is emitting heat and light, and if hot enough it can even take on a somewhat liquid state. If I touch it to something which is flammable that thing will burst into flames. So in this way, something that is substantially different from that which is light and hot and like fire, can take on the characteristics of actual fire.
In a very similar manner, in the process of yoga – our sādhana, is meant for the purpose of engaging or immersing our mind in that which is transcendental or spiritual. The mind then becomes purified by this experience and begins to take on a character that is quite different from the material mind. It is still material, but now it is in a state of purification and in many ways, as Vyāsa has stated, it becomes or manifests the character of the ātma, or the self.