Light of the Spirit Blog

What is Our Essential Nature as Seer?

seer essential natureSutras 3 & 4 of Book One of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

3. Then the Seer [Drashta] is established in his own essential and fundamental nature [Swarupa].

Vyasa immediately comments and paraphrases:

“Then the power-of-consciousness [chit-shakti] rests in its own nature, as in the state of release [moksha]. But when the mind is extraverted [turned outward], though it is so, it is not so.”

That is, even though each of us always rests in his true nature, for it is inviolable, at the same time we do not so rest experientially–just the opposite, we are aware of and identify with just about everything else.

Shankara first says in consideration of this sutra:

“It has been said that yoga is inhibition of the mental processes, by which inhibition the true being of Purusha as the cognizer is realized.”

It is a bit convoluted, but the following words of Shankara are very important:

“Purusha is the cognizer of buddhi in the sense that he is aware of buddhi in its transformations as the forms of the mental processes. The nature of Purusha is simple awareness of them; the one who is aware is not different from the awareness. If the one who is aware were different from the awareness itself, he would be changeable and then would not be a mere witness who has objects shows to him.”

Our essential nature as Knowing

Self-forgetfulness is the root of all our problems, the essence of samsara itself. Consciousness (chaitanya) is our essential nature. When asked what the Self is, Sri Ramakrishna simply answered: “The witness of the mind.” We are the seer of our individual life in the same way that God is the Seer of cosmic life. Therefore Patanjali speaks of the Self as the Seer.

When the chitta remains in a state both free from modifications and from the state in which is is possible for modifications to occur, then the yogi is established in his swarupa–essential form or nature. In that state his swarupa is that which imparts to him perfect knowledge of himself. So it is not just Seeing, it is Knowing.

People are getting flashes or glimpses of their Self throughout their lives, but they are overshadowed and even eclipsed by their usual perceptions of the modifications of the chitta. That is why it is necessary for us to reach that state (sthiti) in which no modifications can take place, but we shall remain firmly in the consciousness of our Reality–just as does God.

4. In other states there is assimilation/identification [of the Seer] with the modifications [of the mind].

Outside the state of being centered fully in the Self, there is vritti sarupyam–such a close identity with the experiences of relative existence that the person seems to be assimilated by them, overshadowed and rendered completely forgetful by them, mistaking them for reality and for his Self-nature.

This is the state of being “lost” from which we must become “saved.” But unlike popular religion (and all religions provide “saviors” of some sort), Yoga explains to us that we must save ourselves–through Yoga. “Therefore, become a yogi” (Bhagavad Gita 6:46).

Fortunately, we do not really change when this false identity occurs. As Shankara points out: “The apparent change is not intrinsic but projected [adhyaropita], like a crystal’s taking on the color of something put near it.”

The “not-self”

Here is another paragraph from Shankara that I think is important both for its accuracy and for the fact of it being said by such an authority as he:

“Therefore knowledge of objective forms, and memory, and its recall, and effort and desire and so on, are all essentially not-self [anatma], because they are objects of knowledge like outer forms, and because they exist-for-another [parartha] as is shown by their dependence on the body-mind aggregate for the manifestation of their forms and other qualities. So because they have dependence, and are impermanent and are accompanied by effort–for these and similar reasons it is certain that they are essentially not-self.”

This is also important because it is identical with the teaching of Buddha on these points, showing that Buddha was a classical Sankhya Yogi and not a “Buddhist” at all.

There is a most important point that must be pointed out here. Patanjali tells us that we must bring the chitta, the mind-substance, into a state of pure clarity in which modifications can no longer be produced. Why does he not tell us to just jettison the mind and be rid of it?

Because, as both Vyasa and Shankara state in their commentaries on this sutra, the purusha has an eternal, a “beginningless relation,” with the mind. We have always had it and always will, so we must correct/perfect it to be freed from samsara. There is no other way–the way of the yogi.

Previously: When a Vritti (Mental Ripple) Cannot Arise
Next: What are the 5 Modifications of the Mind?

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Paschal Greetings!

Icon of Jesus and St. Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection

St. Mary Magdalene discovers the Risen Jesus at the tomb.

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:


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