Light of the Spirit Blog

When a Vritti (Mental Ripple) Cannot Arise

vrittisSutra 2 of Book one of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

2. Yoga is the inhibition of the modifications of the mind. Yogash chitta-vritti-nirodhah.

This is almost sure to be misinterpreted in English translations and commentaries, though I cannot say why, unless it is that the writers are not really yogis and therefore unable to grasp the meaning since they have no experience of what Patanjali is describing. Sorry if that sounds smug and arrogant, but I have had nearly half a century in which to observe these things.

Many interpretations

Chitta is the subtle energy that is the substance of the mind, and therefore the mind itself. Vritti is thought-wave; mental modification; mental whirlpool; a ripple in the chitta. Nirodha is restraint; restriction; suppression; dissolving. Some say that chitta-vritti-nirodha means cessation of the modifications of the mind, some that it means control of the vrittis or thoughts, some that it is prevention of vrittis, some that it is the suppression, destruction or erasing of vrittis, some that it is the lessening or inhibition or restricting of vrittis, some that it is the silencing of the mind.

Certainly nirodha embraces all of these, but only as aspects or stages toward the ultimate nirodha. These stages deal with the vrittis themselves, and sometimes with an interaction with them to affect them in some way. In all of these the vrittis have already arisen, so they are simply ways of dealing with them. These stages are only police-actions, cleanup operations, and are not at all the answer.

The answer is for the chitta to be in such a state that vrittis cannot arise. Then alone will there be no problems to deal with. There is no lasting value in producing a state where the arising of the vrittis is only prevented, because if there is a lapse they will start up all over again and we will be right back where we started. I have seen this a lot over the years, and in time it leads to frustration and surrender to the condition.

When the mind and Self are one

The nirodha Patanjali is presenting to us is a permanent condition of the chitta in which it has been so transformed or transmuted that the arising of vrittis is impossible. It just cannot happen. Sri Ramana Maharshi spoke of this as a state in which the mind has become the Self. Until then, he said, all other attempts are like catching a thief, making him a policeman, and ordering him to go catch the thief–himself. It cannot work. It is the difference between birth-control and sterility. Nirodha is the latter.

When we realize this, our whole perspective on yoga will change, and so will our valuation of our practice. It will be very different from that of the yoga dabblers. I knew one dabbler who could stop thoughts readily, and thought he was a yoga adept, but he came to a terrible end after a ruinous life.

What is a vritti?

First of all, vrittis are not just thoughts, they are also impressions and impulses. Thoughts are actually the least of the modifications of the chitta. But most important, vrittis are responses of the chitta, called forth by external or internal stimuli. These are the major problems, though the real, fundamental problem is the capacity of the mind to respond in modifications of any kind.

We can see from this that to think nirodha is just a matter of no-thought is missing the point entirely. Yoga is the radical transformation of the very nature of the mind–and therefore of its functions. It is not just taming or training it. That leads nowhere but right back to the beginning. Is it any wonder, then, that most yoga is ultimately valueless, and its practicers unchanged?

What does Shankara say?

Having said this, I must point out, as does Shankara, that there is a state known as nirodha samadhi in which the mind enters into the perfectly non-responsive condition, but this is a temporary state which, when practiced enough, will become permanent, unbroken. Shankara declares that

“moksha [liberation] is not something different from nirodha samadhi. There is some distinction insofar as after nirodha samadhi there is recurrence of active mental processes [pravritti], whereas moksha is a final cessation [nivritti] of them. But in that samadhi as such, there is no distinction from moksha. So the sutra [1:3] has said, ‘Then the seer is established in his own nature,’ and it will also be said [4:34] that being established in its own nature is moksha: ‘or it is the establishment of the power-of-consciousness in its own nature.’ So it is incontestable that the sutra means to say that moksha is only by seedless [nirbija] samadhi.”

Next: What is the Seer’s Essential Nature?

Random Gems:

The Beginning of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

meditating face yoga sutras of patanjaliSutra 1 of Book one of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

1. Now, an exposition of Yoga [is to be made]. Raghavan Iyer: “Now begins instruction in yoga.”

This is the usual formula for the beginning of a major text. It is very interesting to see that Saint Matthew began his Gospel in the same manner: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise” (Matthew 1:18). In the Greek text the word is de, which means exactly the same as atha, the Sanskrit word used by Patanjali. Is this a coincidence?

Historical records tell us that the Essenes were condemned by the religious authorities at the time of Jesus for various things, including “the keeping of alien religious texts”–the scriptures of other religions. According to the psychic perceptions of Levi Dowling found in The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ the Essenes taught from Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist texts as well as the Hebrew scriptures. So it would be likely that Saint Matthew was aware of the Indian practice regarding expository writings.

And now…

It is common in most Sanskrit commentaries to interpret atha as meaning that there are prerequisites to the studying of sacred subjects, that basic philosophical principles must be first learned, and spiritual disciplines followed, especially moral and ascetic observances. Only then is the student qualified to be taught the wisdom embodied in the text. Commentators say that atha is meant to remind them of this fact and to warn them that if they have not laid such a foundation then their study may be defective and fruitless.

Agreeing with this, Jnaneshvara Bharati renders this sutra in an explanatory paraphrase: “Now, after having done prior preparation through life and other practices, the study and practice of Yoga begins.” We will not now outline what the preparation is, since Patanjali will do so in Book II, the Sadhana Pada, in sutra twenty-nine regarding yama and niyama. The reason he waits is given by Shankara in his commentary:

“No one will follow through the practices and restrictions of yoga unless the goal and the related means to it have been clearly set out…as yoga is the result of applying the means to yoga.…Yoga is the goal of the yoga methods.”

First, then will be an explanation of the nature of the state of yoga to which we should be aspiring.

A preparation for the Supreme

Yogananda often said: “Yoga is the beginning of the end,” as the capstone of many lives lived in a positive manner, which included a conscious search for God. In this life there must be a continuation of that mode of life to prepare ourselves for the supreme science, the science of the Absolute which we call Yoga.

Yoga requires preparation. This is proven by the fact that after over one hundred years of yoga teaching and practice in this country there has been little lasting effect, for few indeed have ascended to higher consciousness. The reason is the lack of foundation upon which to build an effective spiritual life.

The yoga peddlers come to town, sell their wares, and move on leaving behind ignorant and confused people trying to get benefit from something completely beyond their capacity. They are not bad people, they are incompetent because they have no background, no preparation, especially in the matter of purification. Patanjali is aware of this, and so his first word in Yoga Darshan is Atha.

In his commentary on this sutra Vyasa states: “Yoga is samadhi”–the superconscious state. Commenting on this Shankara says something different from the usual: “Yoga is not to be taken as from the root yuj in the sense of joining together, but the sense of sam-a-dha: set together. Yoga is samadhana [samadhi], complete concentration.” He makes this assertion because only separate things can be joined.

Later he says: “Yoga is the eternal relation with the Self.” Samadhi–Yoga–is not the bringing about of the union of the two, but the realization of their eternal unity. It is no small point. “The Self is always in samadhi,” says Shankara.

(Because of their supreme authority, Vyasa and Shankara will be quoted a great deal in this commentary. Although much that they say is quite technical, it is impossible to responsibly and completely bring out the meaning of the Yoga Sutras otherwise.)

Next: What is the most quoted verse of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali?

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A New Commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Patanjali's Yoga SutrasWith this post we will begin adding Abbot George’s Commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras to our Blog’s rotation of articles. We hope you find it useful.

Introduction to the Yoga Sutras

The text known as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is a repository of transcendental knowledge. Poetic and exaggerated as that may sound, it is neither, but is simple fact, as anyone can learn for himself by practice of its instructions. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. It is also known as the Yoga Darshana because it is the fundamental text of Yoga not as a practice (though practice is discussed) but as a philosophy, as one of the six orthodox systems (darshanas) of Hindu religion: Sanatana Dharma.

The basis of Sanatana Dharma

There is a temptation to designate a single book as the greatest or most important book in the the world. The Yoga Darshana is one of these, but in reality it is one of fourteen texts upon which the totality of authentic Sanatana Dharma is based. When those texts are studied and applied, then a person is a Sanatana Dharmi–not a “member” or “adherent” of Sanatana Dharma, but an embodiment of Dharma, one who is moving toward the ultimate goal of Liberation. The fourteen texts are:

  1. Isha Upanishad
  2. Kena Upanishad
  3. Katha Upanishad
  4. Prashna Upanishad
  5. Mundaka Upanishad
  6. Mandukya Upanishad
  7. Taittiriya Upanishad
  8. Aitareya Upanishad
  9. Chandogya Upanishad
  10. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
  11. Shvetashvatara Upanishad
  12. Srimad Bhagavad Gita (usually just called “the Gita”)
  13. Sankhya Karika
  14. Yoga Darshana (Yoga Sutras)

The upanishads are books of varying length setting forth the spiritual realizations of the ancient sages of India based on their experiential knowledge of the Absolute Reality. They are the oldest of the texts listed here.

The Bhagavad Gita is a digest of the upanishads, containing philosophical and practical instruction on the way to attain the same experience as the upanishadic sages.

The Sankhya Karika is the basic text of the Sankhya Darshan, the philosophy on which both the Gita and the Yoga Darshan are based.

The common feature of these fourteen texts is that they are all based on verifiable reality, not intellectual theory (“reason”) or unverifiable “revelation” by a single historical personage whose existence is not even assured, nor is there any way to ensure that the revelation has not been corrupted over the centuries by omissions and interpolations.

There is no need to have “faith” in these fourteen texts, for their statements can be verified by any reader–as has been done over thousands of years by countless yogis in India. A virtual army of self-realized men and women have proved their veracity and accuracy. Many of them are living right now as witnesses to the truth of Sanatana Dharma, which is based on the principle that all sentient beings are destined to attain Liberation–union with Divinity–since they are eternal parts of the Supreme Spirit, the Purushottama.


All fourteen texts listed above are based on the Sankhya philosophy. The Sankhya Karika is the most authoritative Sankhya text, having been written by the divine sage Kapila Muni. A Brief Sanskrit Glossary defines Sankhya as: “One of the six orthodox systems of Hindu philosophy whose originator was the sage Kapila. Sankhya is the original Vedic philosophy, endorsed by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (Gita 2:39; 3:3,5; 18:13,19), the second chapter of which is entitled ‘Sankhya Yoga.’ The Ramakrishna-Vedanta Wordbook says:

‘Sankhya postulates two ultimate realities, Purusha and Prakriti. Declaring that the cause of suffering is man’s identification of Purusha with Prakriti and its products, Sankhya teaches that liberation and true knowledge are attained in the supreme consciousness, where such identification ceases and Purusha is realized as existing independently in its transcendental nature.’

Not surprisingly, then, Yoga is based on the Sankhya philosophy.” The Sankhya philosophy is the basis of the Yoga philosophy–for Yoga is a philosophy as well as a practice and the goal.


There are various theories about just who Patanjali was, none of which are provable beyond a doubt. We have no idea who wrote the upanishads or the Vedas, either. Actually this is no problem since what matters is the fact that the Yoga Sutras are demonstrably true. As Paramhansa Yogananda said in his autobiography:

“Patanjali’s date is unknown, though a number of scholars place him in the second century B.C. The rishis gave forth treatises on all subjects with such insight that ages have been powerless to outmode them; yet, to the subsequent consternation of historians, the sages made no effort to attach their own dates and personalities to their literary works. They knew their lives were only temporarily important as flashes of the great infinite Life; and that truth is timeless, impossible to trademark, and no private possession of their own.”


This commentary is not meant to be a scholarly commentary, but a practical one. Those wishing to go deeper into the subject should obtain and study two excellent books. One is Sankara on the Yoga Sutras by Trevor Leggett, which is a translation of the sutras and the commentaries of Shankara and Vyasa. The other is The Science of Yoga by I. K. Taimni, a translation of the sutras and a detailed commentary. It is Taimni’s translation that I use in this commentary, though I have consulted many other translations throughout.

Next: “And now, an exposition of Yoga,” the first of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

Further Reading:


What is the Right Perspective on Scriptures?

veda scripturesA continuation of an analysis of the correct place of scriptures in spiritual life discussed in When Rites Go Wrong

Krishna has more to say about materially oriented scriptures and religion (though he just mentions the Vedas):

“The Vedas are such that their scope is confined to the three gunas; be free from those three gunas, indifferent toward the pairs of opposites, permanently fixed in reality, free from thoughts of acquisition and possessiveness, and possessed of the Self.

As much value as there is in a well when water is flooding on every side, so much is the value in all the Vedas for a brahmin who knows”
(Bhagavad Gita 2:45, 46).

Again, by “the Vedas” Krishna means the ritualistic portion of the Vedas, the karma-kanda in contrast to the upanishads, the jnana-kanda, which embody the highest spiritual wisdom and vision ever set down by human beings. They are really two opposing poles, one external and material, the other internal and spiritual. The karma-kanda insists that ritual is the only way to spiritual attainment; the upanishads affirm exactly the opposite.

Krishna, continuing the theme of the previous verses, insists that however sacred the karma-kanda may claim its rituals to be, they really deal with nothing more than Prakriti, material nature, involvement with which produces only ignorance and bondage culminating in rebirth.

The gunas

According to Sankhya philosophy, material energy behaves in three modes, or gunas (qualities). We will be considering them at length in chapter fourteen, which is entitled “The Yoga of Distinction Between the Three Gunas.” For now we need only think of them as three forms of material consciousness.

Whereas the karma-kanda does nothing more than entangle its adherents in the three gunas, Krishna tells Arjuna that he must overcome the three gunas, that materiality must be transcended by entry into consciousness of the Self (Atman).

But it is no easy matter, to be free from the bonds of matter. Rather, the gunas must be overcome. This entails a struggle, and not an easy one, either, for Krishna later says to him: “Maya, made up of the three gunas, is difficult to go beyond” (7:14).

The pairs of opposites

The dwandwas, the pairs of opposites, are also material phenomena, such as pleasure and pain, hot and cold, light and darkness, gain and loss, victory and defeat, love and hatred. Usually people think that the ideal is to eliminate one of the pairs and cultivate the other. This is the common attitude of religion throughout the world: seek the “good” and avoid the “bad.”

But the sages of India discerned that real wisdom is to be established in the state in which the pairs of opposites cannot affect us. We neither seek one nor shun the other, but see them for the momentary appearances they really are, only mirages cast by our own mind.

The word nirdwandwas means “untouched by–indifferent to–the pairs of opposites,” and also “without the pair of opposites.” At first we are indifferent to them when they insinuate themselves into our experience. But in time we are simply without them–they will have ceased to even exist for us. Then we will not need to endure them: they will have vanished like the dream they are.

Further Reading:


Are You Among the “Nirvanics”?


“Nirvanics” mentioned in this article

The way of the wise

“Those who meditate with perseverance, constantly working hard at it, are the wise who experience Nirvana, the ultimate freedom from chains” (Dhammapada 23).

Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion, frequently used the expression “godwards” for those who were moving toward Divine Consciousness. We might coin the ungainly word “Nirvanics” for those Buddha is describing in this twenty-third verse of the Dhammapada. They are the wise. As Yogananda said, the world is divided into two types of human beings: the wise who are seeking God and the foolish who are not.

Whatever the terms we may use for “the ultimate freedom from chains,” the idea is the same: right now we are bound, but we can become unbound. How? Buddha is telling us how.


One time a man asked me if he could speak with me about some problems and questions he had. “Why bother?” brayed an eavesdropper standing nearby, “All he will do is tell you to meditate!” Yes, it is true: meditation is the only solution. Many things are needed to support our meditation and ensure its success, but meditation is the prime means for those seeking real freedom of being.

Paramhansa Yogananda, writing about Yogiraj Shyama Charan Lahiri, one of nineteenth-century India’s greatest yogis, said:

“The great guru taught his disciples to avoid theoretical discussion of the scriptures. ‘He only is wise who devotes himself to realizing, not reading only, the ancient revelations,’ he said. ‘Solve all your problems through meditation. Exchange unprofitable religious speculations for actual God-contact. Clear your mind of dogmatic theological debris; let in the fresh, healing waters of direct perception. Attune yourself to the active inner Guidance; the Divine Voice has the answer to every dilemma of life. Though man’s ingenuity for getting himself into trouble appears to be endless, the Infinite Succor is no less resourceful.’”

Long before these wise words of Lahiri Mahasaya, Buddha made clear to his students again and again that meditation was the way to freedom.


Wonderful as it is, meditation is no magic trick. Only those gain its benefit who “meditate with perseverance, constantly working hard at it.” So two things must characterize our meditation practice: constancy and effective effort. We keep on and keep on, never stopping for a moment in the endeavor to continually direct our awareness toward Reality. And that endeavor cannot be done in a lackadaisical manner. The Path is walked, or even run, along, not shuffled or moseyed along.

The great twentieth-century Roman Catholic philosopher, Dietrich van Hildebrand, wrote in his masterful study of spiritual evolution, Transformation in Christ, that the majority of people suffer from what he calls “discontinuity.” That is, most people simply cannot sustain either effort or thought unless driven by the base passions. In other words, they have no real freedom of mind and will, though they think they do. Addiction impels us, but wisdom does not, for freedom is both its goal and its requisite. Hence, our sustained effort at meditation must come directly from within us as a fully conscious and willful choice. Every day this is true: each step on the path is a conscious choice–clear to the end. This is not a path for the timid or the lazy or the merely curious.

Intent on meditation

Perhaps Richard’s translation: “constantly working hard at it,” is not the best, for meditation is certainly a matter of effort, but not one of stress or strain. The Venerable Thanissaro Bhikkhu renders it: “firm in their effort.” We must be focussed–intent–on our practice, certainly exerting will and strength, but in a judicial and cool-headed manner. Constant and steady is the way.

The chains

We are bound by millions (if not billions) of chains, yet meditation pursued rightly will dissolve them all. In the meantime we have to make sure we are not binding more chains on us, like the washed dog that immediately runs out and rolls in the filth to counteract the cleanliness. Here, too, meditation is the answer, for the insight born of meditation enables us to see the folly of bondage and the understanding to turn away from more involvement in chaining ourselves.


The purpose of all this is Nirvana. Just as a child cannot comprehend adulthood, so we cannot really understand just what Nirvana is. But one thing we can know: it is the opposite of where we now find ourselves! Attempts at definition are risky.

Some time back I saw a television show on which a reputed “authority” on Buddhism was asked by an interviewer to describe Nirvana. He proceeded to give a checklist of the characteristics of Nirvana–every one of which is listed by Buddha in the Pali sutras as NOT Nirvana, though many mistake them for Nirvana. It was sort of like hearing a Christian recite the opposite qualities listed by Jesus in the Beatitudes or a Jew reciting the exact opposites to the Ten Commandments.

But let us give ourselves at least an approximation, a whiff, of what Nirvana surely entails: “It is a supramundane state that can be attained in this life itself. It is also explained as extinction of passions, but not a state of nothingness. It is an eternal blissful state of relief that results from the complete eradication of the passions.” So says the Venerable Narada Thera.

And so seek all of us.

Further reading:

Six Quick Answers to Spiritual Questions

Spiritual Questions and AnswersHere are answers to some of  the spiritual questions which readers have asked us. If you have questions on spiritual life, we invite you to explore our site to increase your knowledge, or use our contact form here.

Q: If I am not mistaken, the Bhagavad Gita says that to attain spiritual awakening it is mandatory to have a guru or spiritual master.…

No; that is the usual interpretation, but it is incorrect. Krishna (Vyasa) tell us to seek out worthy teachers–acharyas. This is not same as the mythological guru figures of degenerate Hinduism. That is why the great master Swami Sivananda often said: “I abhor gurudom.” [For more information, read Gurus: Yes or No?]

Is initiation necessary in effort to search for spiritual awakening?

Definitely not. Spiritual awakening arises from within the individual when a certain level of evolution is reached. This is why Buddha is referred to as Self-Awakened. The same to true of all of us. [See God as the Guru]

There are a number of religious scriptures in the world. But some of them are in contradiction to one another. If these are all really divine revelations from God why then do different religions war with one another?

Scriptures are not divine revelations directly from God. Those that claim to be so are false and should be ignored. Rather, scriptures record the insights of those who have gained some experience of spiritual realities. The limitations of those authors naturally limit what they write. Their own understanding of their experiences may also be limited or even mistaken.

That is why the Bhagavad Gita urges us to seek direct spiritual experience for ourselves and go beyond dependence on books and teachers. This is why the Gita tells us to become yogis. Without yoga there is not hope of full spiritual understanding, much less enlightenment. [Read Perspective on Scriptures for more on this.]

Within Hindu religion ritual animal sacrifices is still being practiced in some parts of India, Nepal and Bali which quite contradict the teaching of ahimsa. How can we explain this?

Contemporary religion in India is often a mishmash of the most sublime truths and the most profound ignorance and superstition. Like the ant we must take the sugar and leave aside the sand.

Many spiritual associations and ashrams follow the pure traditions of India’s enlightened sages, and these should be sought out. Again: it is not philosophy we need, but our own inner experience through personal yoga practice.

When the Self leaves the body at the time of death, who carries the memory of the karma, which is going to be the foundation for the next reincarnation?

Karma exists as energy impulses, waves or whorls in the astral and causal levels of the subtle mind body. They depart the present body, remain for a while in the subtle worlds, then create the next body, enter into it and manifest through it.

What is the best time to meditate?

Whenever you can and do meditate. However, it is my experience that the Brahmamuhurta, around 4:00 a.m. is the best because the mind is calmest then. Here we meditate from 4 to 7 each morning and prefer that. Some people find they meditate best in the evening, so it is really an individual matter.

I would like to advise you to meditate for at least three hours in a single session whenever you can manage. Once you can sit for three hours you can sit for much longer. [See also Three Useful Meditation Tips]

Further Reading:


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