Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras

Patañjali (of whom little is known, but who is believed to have lived sometime between 200 B.C.E. and 300 C.E.) was the author of the Yoga Sutras, one of the most important treatises of Yoga philosophy. The Yoga Sutras are a collection of sutras (or aphorisms) on how to attain mental concentration. The sutras are divided into four padas (or parts): I) Samadhi (Concentration); II) Sadhana (Method or Practice); III) Vibhuti (Supernormal Powers); and IV) Kaivalya (Isolation or Liberation).

The Yoga Sutras contain 195 sutras. The Samadhi-pada contains 51 sutras, the Sadhana-pada contains 55 sutras, the Vibhuti-pada contains 55 sutras, and the Kaivalya-pada contains 34 sutras. Each sutra (which in Sanskrit means "thread") conveys an important truth, but is further explained by commentary from writers such as Vyasa (whose Yoga-Bhasya, or "Commentary on the Yoga Sutras," was written c.650-850 C.E.), Vacaspati Mishra (whose Tattva-Vaisharadi, or "Commentary on the Yoga-Bhasya," was written c.850 C.E.), Bhoja Raja (whose Yoga-sutra-vritti, "Modes of the Yoga Sutras," was written sometime during the eleventh century C.E.), and Vijnana Bhikshu (whose Yoga-sara-samgraha, "Summary of the Essence of Yoga," was written sometime during the sixteenth century C.E.).

The Samadhi-pada discusses the methods of restricting mental fluctuations, the goal of concentration, the attainment of stability of mind; and the quality of the highest Self. The Sadhana-pada discusses the five hindrances to concentration, the methods which may be used to weaken hindrances, the means of escape from hindrances, and the five indirect aids to yoga (i.e. the path to cessation of mental fluctuations). The Vibhuti-pada discusses the three direct aids to yoga, the stages of concentration, the practical means of concentration, and the nature of insight. The Kaivalya-pada describes how freedom from hindrances to concentration leads to the full realization of the Self.

Patañjali defines yoga (in Yoga-Sutra I.2) as chitta-vritti-nirodha (the cessation of mental fluctuations). Vyasa’s commentary on the first sutra in the Samadhi-pada explains that chitta (the thinking substance or principle) has five stages: 1) the restless (ksipta), 2) the torpid (mudha), 3) the distracted (viksipta), 4) the focused (ekagra), and 5) the restricted (niruddha). The first three stages (ksipta, mudha, and viksipta) are not classified as yoga, but the next two stages (ekagra and niruddha) are classified as yoga.

Vyasa's commentary also explains that chitta (the mind-stuff or thinking-substance) includes buddhi (intellect), ahamkara (ego-sense), and manas (mind). Chitta evolves from prakriti (primary matter), but may reflect purusha (spirit). Purusha is pure conscioussness and absolute awareness. Purusha transcends the world of prakriti. Purusha is an unchanging principle of reality, but prakriti may be changed by interactions of gunas (qualities) which include: 1) sattva (clarity, radiance), 2) rajas (energy, passion), and 3) tamas (darkness, lethargy).

Mental fluctuations may be caused by latent or subliminal impressions (samskaras), and subliminal impressions may be caused by mental fluctuations. Mental fluctuations may be restricted by practice (abhyasa) and by detachment (vairagya). Practice can lead to calmness and stability (sthiti). Detachment is a loss of desire for worldly objects (I.15). Supreme detachment (paravairagya) is a state of absolute indifference to the gunas of prakriti (I.16).

Patañjali explains that there are nine distractions (vikshepas) or obstacles to calming mental fluctuations (I.30), including: 1) sickness (vyadhi), 2) listlessness (alasya), 3) doubt (samsaya), 4) carelessless (pramada), 5) lethargy (styana), 6) worldliness (avirati), 7) erroneous perceptions (bhrantidarshana), 8) failure to attain any stage of concentration (alabdhabhumikatva), and 9) instability of any stage of concentration (anavasthitatva). These distractions may cause pain, dejection, restlessness of the body, and unsteadiness of breathing (I.31). These distractions may be overcome by focusing the mind on a single principle of reality, and by practicing concentration.

According to Patañjali, mental fluctuations are modifications (vritti) of chitta (the mind-stuff or thinking-substance ). These modifications include: 1) valid cognition (pramana), 2) invalid cognition (viparayaya), 3) concepts which do not refer to any corresponding reality (vikalpa), 4) dreamless sleep, or absent cognition (nidra), and 5) memory (smriti). These mental fluctuations may be hindered or unhindered.1

Pramana (valid cognition) may arise from: 1) perception (pratyaksa), 2) inference (anumana), and 3) verbal testimony (shabda). Thus, Patañjali maintains that there are three valid sources of knowledge. However, viparayaya (invalid cognition) is wrong knowledge which can create an illusion or misconception about something (such as when darkness is misperceived as light, or when obscurity is misperceived as clarity).

Viparayaya (wrong knowledge) may be caused by the five hindrances or afflictions (II.3, kleshas): 1) ignorance (avidya), 2) egoism (asmita), 3) attachment (raga), 4) aversion (dvesha), and 5) fear of death (abhinivesha). Avidya (II.4) is the field upon which the other hindrances may be dormant (prasupta), attentuated (tanu), interrupted (vicchinna), or sustained (udara). Avidya is a cause of the mistaken tendency to identify the impermanent as permanent, and the not-self as the self (II.5). Asmita is a cause of the mistaken tendency to identify the intellect (buddhi) as pure consciousness (purusha). Raga is a cause of the failure to perceive the spiritual reality of the Self as being different from the material reality of prakriti. Dvesha is the tendency to dwell upon pain.2 Abhinivesha is an instinctive fear of death or a sense of threatened annihilation.

Karmas (actions) may be caused by hindrances to concentration. Kriya-Yoga (the Yoga of action) may weaken hindrances, and may thus diminish mental fluctuations (II.2). Kriya-Yoga includes: 1) tapas (self-discipline), 2) svadhyaya (repetition of mantras and study of scriptures), and 3) Ishvara-pranidhana (devotion to God).

Patañjali notes that the sacred word designating God (or Ishvara) is the mystic syllable OM (I.27). Repetition of the mystic syllable OM and reflection upon its meaning may be an aid to concentration.

Patañjali also says that the means of escape from hindrances may be provided by discriminative discernment (viveka-khyati). Liberation (kaivalya) is attained by means of discriminative discernment, which reveals how purusha is different from prakriti. Discriminative discernment leads to the concentration which Patañjali calls the Cloud of Knowable Things (Dharmamegha). The attainment of this Cloud of Knowable Things leads to the cessation of hindrances and of fluctuations.

When all hindrances to concentration have been overcome, the Self can act freely and authentically. The highest Self is unhindered by fluctuations or by karmas. The Self which is liberated from prakriti has an absolute consciousness established in its own Self (IV.34) The eight aids to yoga enable the thinking-principle (chitta) to attain discriminative discernment and thus to reflect purusha (spirit).

Patañjali says that the eight aids to yoga (II.29) include: 1) restraint (yama), 2) observances (niyama), 3) bodily postures (asana), 4) regulation of breath (pranayama), 5) withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), 6), fixed attention (dharana), 7) meditation (dhyana), and 8) perfect concentration (samadhi). The first five aids are indirect aids, while the next three aids are direct aids. The indirect aids are also referred to as outer or external aids (bahiranga sadhana), while the direct aids are also referred to as inner or internal aids (antaranga sadhana).

The eight aids or means to yoga are called the eight limbs (angas) of yoga. Thus, Patañjali’s yoga (ashtanga yoga, or eight-limbed yoga) is an eightfold path toward perfect concentration.

Restraint (yama) includes the five abstentions: 1) abstention from injuring any other beings (ahimsa), 2) abstention from falsehood (i.e. adhering to truth, satya), 3) abstention from stealing (asteya), 4) abstention from lustful sensuality (brahmacharya), and 5) abstention from covetousness (aprarigraha).

The five observances (niyamas) include: 1) purification (shaucha), 2) contentment (santosa), 3) austerity or self-discipline (tapas), 4) study of scriptures (svadhyaya), and 5) devotion to God (Ishvara-pranidhana).

Steady and restful postures (asanas) can promote relaxation of the body. Regulation of breathing (pranayama) can transcend external and internal operations, and can help the mind to focus on discriminative thinking. Withdrawal of sensory awareness (pratyahara) can promote separation from external objects, so that attention can be focused on an inner object.

The three direct aids to yoga (dharana-dhyana-samadhi) are called samyama (perfect restraint) when they are together applied to the same object. Mastery of this perfect restraint is a means to insight (prajña), whereby knowledge is attained of the Self and of the tattvas (principles of reality).

The mind which has attained stability is balanced between the knower, the process of knowing, and the object to be known (I.41). This state of balance produces calming of mental fluctuations. The latent or subliminal impression (samskara) produced by this balanced state of concentration restricts other subliminal impressions (I.50). When the subliminal impression produced by this balanced state of concentration is also restricted, the yogin may attain seedless or objectless concentration (nirbija-samadhi).3

Concentration (samadhi) may have a seed (bija) or object (as sabija-samadhi), or may not have a seed or object (nirbija-samadhi). Objects of concentration include: 1) gross objects (vitarka), 2) subtle objects (vichara), 3) the sense of bliss (ananda), and 4) the ego-sense (asmita). Samprajnata-samadhi is concentration which is reached with the help of vitarka, vichara, ananda, and asmita (I.17).

Vyasa’s commentary explains that samprajnata-samadhi has varying levels or stages (bhumis), including 1) savitarka-samadhi (with gross elements as objects), 2) savichara-samadhi (with subtle elements as objects), 3) sananda-samadhi (with bliss as an object), and 4) sasmita-samadhi (with the ego-sense as an object).4

Savitarka-samadhi is a lower level of concentration, which includes all four types of objects (vitarka, vichara, ananda, and asmita). Savitarka-samadhi (which determines gross elements as objects) may progress to nirvitarka-samadhi (which does not determine gross elements as objects).5 Nirvitarka-samadhi may progress to the next level of concentration, savichara-samadhi. Savichara-samadhi is free from vitarka.6 Savichara-samadhi (which reflects upon subtle objects) may progress to nirvichara-samadhi (which does not reflect upon subtle objects). Nirvichara-samadhi may progress to the next level of concentration, sananda-samadhi. Sananda-samadhi is free from vitarka and vichara. Sananda-samadhi (which has bliss as an object) may progress to nirananda-samadhi (which does not have bliss as an object). Nirananda-samadhi may progress to the next level of concentration, sasmita-samadhi. Sasmita-samadhi is free from vitarka, vichara, and ananda. Sasmita-samadhi (which determines the ego-sense as an object) may progress to nirasmita-samadhi (which does not determine the ego-sense as an object).

Savitarka-samadhi, savichara-samadhi, sananda-samadhi, and sasmita-samadhi are all stages of samprajnata-samadhi. Samprajnata-samadhi is a state of concentration in which the meditator becomes fused with the object of meditation. Asamprajnata-samadhi is a higher state of concentration in which the object of meditation has disappeared.

Asamprajnata-samadhi leads to kaivalya (isolation or liberation). Kaivalya is attained when purusha is isolated from prakriti. Kaivalya is also attained when spiritual reality transcends material reality.

Yoga is thus a practical means of control over the body and mind. Patañjali affirms that through disciplined activity the Self can attain release and liberation. When the Self is liberated from constraint by mental fluctuations, the Self becomes aware of itself as a spiritual reality. Thus, the practice of yoga can lead to the full realization of the Self and to authentic Selfhood.


1James Haughton Woods, The Yoga System of Patañjali (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914), p. xxx.
2Ibid., p. 117.
3Ibid., p. 98.
4P.T. Raju, Structural Depths of Indian Thought (New Delhi: South Asian Publishers, 1985), p. 348.
5Ibid., p. 348.
6Swami Hariharananda Aranya, Yoga Philosophy of Pantañjali (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983), p. 42.


Hariharananda Aranya, Swami. Yoga Philosophy of Patañjali. Translated by P.N. Mukerji. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983.

Puligandla, R. Fundamentals of Indian Philosophy. Nashville: Abingdon Press (1973), 134-45.

Radhakrishnan, S., and Moore, Charles A., editors. A Source Book in Indian Philosophy. Princeton, Princeton University Press (1957), 453-85.

Raju, P.T. Structural Depths of Indian Thought. New Delhi: South Asian Publishers, 1985.

Raju, P.T. The Philosophical Traditions of India. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd. (1971), 165-74.

Sharma, Chandradhar. A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy. London: Rider & Company (1960), 169-74.

Whicher, Ian. The Integrity of the Yoga Darsana. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

Woods, James Haughton. The Yoga System of Patanjali. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914.

Copywright© 2002 Alex Scott

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