Yoga Musings / Yoga Philosophy

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1.2

The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali is one of the central texts of the Ashtanga tradition, probably even the central text, as I understand things. Perhaps the most famous statement in the Yoga Sutra is that “yoga is a suppression of the modifications of the mind.” What does this statement mean exactly?

Well, there is a lot of scholarly debate about this issue, especially since English translations render this statement in so many different ways. I’m currently writing a paper for one of my graduate seminars on exactly this problem, and hope to post at least a few times on this issue as my paper takes shape.

For starters, I want to set the stage for the debate that surrounds the interpretation of this statement that “yoga is the suppression of the modifications of the mind.” A common Western reading of this statement is that we, as yogis, are trying to get rid of all thoughts – i.e. empty our minds completely. An empty mind, as a goal to be desired, seems kind of strange to many of us. Why the heck would I want to get rid of my thoughts? The explanation in response to this concern is that our thoughts (a) are not reflective of reality, and (b) are the root of all our sufferings.

How are our thoughts not reflective of reality? For one thing, our thoughts about the external world, especially our thoughts that are generated through sense perception, are inaccurate because our senses distort what is real. I won’t delve into a detailed discussion here about how/why our senses distort things, but, suffice it to say, this is something that is fairly uncontroversial and is more or less accepted across the board by both Western and Eastern philosophers. A second part of the claim that our thoughts are not reflective of reality has to do with our sense of self, or “I-sense” as one philosopher puts it. More specifically, our minds are filled with thoughts, opinions, judgments, etc., and we often make the mistake of identifying with this collection of thoughts, opinions, judgments, etc. as our true selves. But, the story goes, surely this jumble of mental activity is not the true essence of a person. Our thoughts, then, mislead us about the reality of our true selves by creating a veil, as it were, which we mistake to be the real self. The process of suppressing the modifications of the mind – i.e. bringing stillness to our thoughts – allows us to see clearly into the real being or true essence of the self. To put all of this metaphorically, we can see clearly to the bottom of a body of water only when the sediment has settled, allowing the light to shine through to that which is basic and fundamental.

How are our thoughts the root of suffering? Well, our desires, fears, anxieties, etc. all take the shape of thoughts, and are informed by our thoughts. Without thinking, then, there can be no suffering. Moreover, the false “I-sense” is the locus of our suffering, and once we rid ourselves of this falsehood, we can release ourselves from any unnecessary suffering that stems from so-called “ego-thinking”. For instance, I may suffer greatly because of, say, financial loss, loss of property, injury to my body, etc., but if I break my attachment to money, property, body, etc., then the extent to which I feel any loss or injury as my own diminishes or disappears altogether.

There are many criticisms of yoga which claim that the program for Samadhi (via suppression of thoughts) is ultimately life-denying, nihilistic, and a negation of the self. Defenders of yoga will deny that yoga is a negative program, and insist that the critics simply misunderstand or mischaracterize this “suppression of the modifications of the mind.”

I don’t claim to be a yoga scholar, but, as an aspiring academic, it is my primary goal to just lay out the issues as clearly as possible, and to understand what arguments are in favor of the different, competing positions/interpretations. Basically, the disagreement with respect to 1.2 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra has to do with the following question: Is yoga a negative, life-denying and person-denying program, or is it a life-affirming, positive system for self improvement? Or, is it neither, and, perhaps, something that lies somewhere in between?

Some more thoughts to follow in the coming weeks as my seminar paper progresses…

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