The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali

by Nikhil Gavankar

One of the greatest gifts of Indian Philosophy to the world is the philosophy of Yoga, which was written by the great Indian sage Patanjali in his book The Yoga Sutra. It is also known as the Patanjali Sutra after the name of its writer.

In the west, Yoga is often associated with some physical exercises and is seen as a tool for relaxation and for keeping the body fit. What is never understood is that the physical postures are merely a stepping stone to realizing a spiritual realm of calmness and peace.

The philosophy of Yoga is closely associated with another school of thought in Indian philosophy known as the Samkhya philosophy. Yoga is generally accepted as the application of the philosophy of Samkhya to our daily life. Its importance lies in the fact that it gives a method of realizing the absolute truths mentioned in most of the other systems of Indian philosophy. The supreme goal of Yoga is the attainment of a clear and tranquil mind, so that one is receptive to the spiritual truths of Indian philosophy. It is the supreme realization of the fact that the true self is a free, immortal spirit which is above the physical, spatiotemporal, causal reality of the external world and free from death and destruction, sin and suffering.

The ultimate aim of Yoga is to distinguish the mind from the body and to attain liberation through methods of concentration, which help in purifying and calming the mind from thoughts, emotions and feelings. The mind is afflicted with different kinds of klesas such as avidya or wrong knowledge, asmita or ego, raga or desire for worldly pleasures, dvesa or aversion to pain and lastly abhinivesa or fear of death. These klesas misidentify the true self with the body and the mind, which is an illusion.

The word Yoga is often understood as the union of the individual self with the divine self, but that is not the case if one reads the Yoga Sutra carefully. In fact, the first sutra in the Yoga Sutra indicates that Yoga means the cessation of all cittavrittinirodh or modifications of the mind, such as feelings, desires or even mental thoughts so that the mind attains a state of absolute calmness. When the waves of affliction in the pool of the mind calm down, leaving it in a state of absolute placidity, the self realizes itself as distinct from the mind body complex and as free, immortal and apart from the external world.

The Patanjali Sutra is divided into four parts

          1. Samadhipada – which talks about the nature and the aim of Yoga and the different methods of attaining the state of Samadhi or Yoga.
          2. Sadhanapada – mental afflictions or klesas that cause suffering, sources of suffering, its causes and the remedy to stop suffering.
          3. Vibhutipada – spiritual powers gained through the rigorous practice of Yoga.
          4. Kaivalyapada – nature and form of ultimate liberation and the reality of the ultimate self.

The Eightfold Means of Yoga

The Samkhya system states that liberation is attained by means of a spiritual insight into the reality of the self as pure and unfettered and distinct from the body and the mind. But for this insight to happen the mind has to be purged of all impurities of emotions, afflictions and thoughts and has to reach the calm state of thoughtlessness. The Yoga sutra gives an eightfold path to achieve this liberation:

      1. Yama or restraint – refers to the five vows, which are mentioned in Jainism as well, such as Satya or truth, Ahimsa or non-violence, Brahmacharya or control of sexual desires, Asteya or non-stealing and Aparigraha or not getting attached to material objects. This is the first step where a human being learns to control and regulate his feelings, emotions and desires and not become their
      2. Niyama or discipline refers to the cultivation of certain habits such as Saucha or purification of the body and mind by taking a bath every day, eating vegetarian food and cultivating emotions such as love, compassion, kindness and non-judgmental attitude towards others. Santosa or satisfaction where one learns to be content and happy with what one has and not crave after things we do not possess. Tapas or penance that involves austere vows such as control of appetite and desires. Svadhyaya or learning Indian philosophical texts and finally Isvarapranidhana or meditation on God.
      3. Asana or physical postures which is what is commonly associated with Yoga in the world today. The discipline of the body is as important as the discipline of the mind. In a strong body resides a strong mind and hence the learning of the various asanas or postures, helps in the creation of a supple, flexible and disease free body in which a calm and peaceful mind can reside.
      4. Pranayama or breath control which involves the regulation of one’s breath through certain exercises. It consists in the suspension of the breathing process either after exhalation or inhalation or simply the retention of the vital breath. The control of the breath process is helpful in strengthening the heart and blood circulation and helps in the concentration of the mind.

The first four stages of Yoga are known as the bahiranga sadhana or external and physical aspect of Yoga. The next four stages are the antaranga sadhana or the internal and mental aspect of Yoga.

      1. Pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses where through the practice of meditation one learns to focus attention not on the objects of the external world but the internal thoughts and feelings of a human being. This requires long hours of practice and a resolute will which makes this stage very difficult but not impossible.
      2. Dharana or complete attention is the holding of the mind in an act of total attention on the desired object without flinching. This ability to hold one attention on an object in a fixed manner is a key element in going to the next stage of Yoga.
      3. Dhyana or meditation is the steadfast contemplation of the object without any break or disturbance. This gives the human being a clear insight of the object in its entirety.
      4. Samadhi or consummation is the final stage where the mind is so deeply immersed in the object that the distinctness between the subject and the object is lost and the mind has no awareness of itself as an entity separate from the object. A person who attains this stage is known as a Yogi who has achieved liberation from his thoughts, feelings and emotions.

Yoga is a theistic philosophy that admits the existence of God on practical grounds. For Patanjali, the value of God as an aid in achieving the final stage of liberation is more pragmatic than theoretical in nature.


      1. Indian Philosophy – Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Oxford University Press
      2. An Introduction to Indian Philosophy – Satishchandra Chatterjee, University of Calcutta 2008

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