Sūtra 1.9

शब्दज्ञानानुपती वस्तुशून्यो विकल्पः
śabda-jñānānupātī vastu-śūnyo-vikalpaḥ


śabda – spoken word; jñāna – knowledge; anupātī – as a consequence of, coming from; vastu – an object; śūnyaḥ – devoid, empty; vikalpaḥ – conceptualization based on verbal delusion;


Vikalpa is the conceptualization of something which arises after having heard about it, though it has no perceptible existence beyond the words used.

This term vikalpaḥ is the third of the vṛttis or the mental states and it is often translated by commentators as being ‘imagination’. On closer examination we’ll see that imagination is not necessarily the most accurate term to use to describe what it is that Patañjali is speaking about.

For instance, in our usage of English we may say to somebody asking me to help them with something, “Hang on a minute”, meaning I need a moment before I can attend to your request. But what does that term actually mean if we deconstruct it?

We of course have some sort of understanding of what we think it means, but although we know that it’s possible to literally hang on something, can you actually take a minute – a period of time, and hang on to it or from it, or hang it on anything? So, what this shows is that there are some words that have some reality we can relate to, but on further consideration we are actually discussing a concept that doesn’t factually exist as a real thing. What it does, however, is that it helps us with some type of understanding; it is therefore a form of knowledge or jñāna.

Another common response when somebody is asking you to do something is, “I’ll find time later.” Or sometimes when somebody is asking someone to make room for them, “Can you make a space for me?”. We don’t have the ability to ‘find time’. It doesn’t exist as an object that I can actually find or grasp and bring to someone else. So, when I use this type of terminology, I’m speaking about something that has some reality, or some real existence that I can  connect with in a certain way, but it does not have any reality beyond the use of the words itself.

The commentator Vyāsa used an interesting example. He uses the word puruṣa, meaning the seer or the living being – the ātmā, and he says, “If I say puruṣa has the character of not being created, no positive quality relating to puruṣa is actually being indicated. I’m just stating that puruṣa has a character of not being created, but by the mere lack of a property of ‘being created’ this is something that is implied.” Due to his implying that the puruṣa has this quality of ‘not being created’, that characteristic is regarded as vikalpa, indicating an idea which has no existence beyond the word; no existence beyond the word meaning – “Can you point to something that is not created? If it is not created it has no existence and giving that character or quality to something is not something I can reach out to and touch or pick up, or define beyond just that concept.

On reflection, we find that often we think and communicate in very imprecise terms, and what we are seeing here is the meticulous precision with which Patañjali is analyzing and explaining things. He is detailing the vrttis in this way to help us more deeply understand what the puruṣa is. We are partially able to achieve that understanding by understanding what it is not. By hearing about the subject of these five vrttis – the states of consciousness that the mind can exist in and the nature of the fluctuations of these vrttis and everything associated with them, we will be able to clearly identify those things. We then are able to discern, “that is not the puruṣa, this is not the ātmā; this is something of the material nature, something which is external.” Patañjali is therefore directing us to very carefully pay attention to what the mind is, so that yogis can be very clear about what the puruṣa should not be identified as being.

As we progress further, I will not be spending very much time going into laborious detail on some of these points, even though there is a tremendous amount of knowledge attached to these different points. I will only be presenting things in summary, not wanting you to become overwhelmed and perhaps disheartened. The search for the puruṣa – for self-realization, is a very noble and the most important of all undertakings, and one does not have to be excessively qualified intellectually in the way people commonly think of intellectualism, to be able to experience these perceptions and deep understandings.

Therefore, I am just going to deal with them with some brevity, but as we go through these sūtras, I’ll try to provide a good understanding in order that the sincere practitioner can benefit from these directions. In summary, for this example of vikalpaḥ, we’re learning that the mind can be recognized by what it does; that the different vṛttis are activities of the mind and manifesting states of material consciousness, and by understanding these we can therefore differentiate between what is spiritual in nature and that which is material.