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Patanjali's Conception of the Mind

What is yoga? Despite the current popularity of yoga practice, few people, when pressed, seem capable of providing a satisfactory answer to this question. The complexity, subtlety and paradox inherent in the ancient tradition does not lend itself to an easy answer. At the beginning of the Yoga Sutra, however--in the second aphorism to be precise, Patanjali gives what seems to be a concise and definitive definition: “Yogas citta vritti nirodhah” That this is not the end of the matter---but rather the mere beginning of a long journey into esoteric realms of both theory and experience--becomes clear when one examines the bewildering variety of translations of this Sanskrit aphorism into English. “Yoga is a restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness . . . Yoga is the control of the thought waves in the mind. . . .Yoga is restraining the activities of the mind. . . . Yoga is the process of ending the definitions of the field of consciousness . . . Yoga is the cessation of the misidentification with the modifications of the mind. . .”

Part of this difficulty lies in translation. As the “language of the gods”, a sacred tongue consecrated to the transmission of spiritual truth, Sanskrit words do not easily find their equivalents in our modern secular English. Yet both the number of Sanskrit commentators over the centuries and the length of their works suggest that there is much more to it than that.

Patanjali’s aphorisms express in a succinct, elliptical style nuggets of truth gleaned from first hand experience. Though taken as a whole the Yoga Sutra forms an integrated philosophy, its theoretical dimension depends upon direct encounter rather than speculative thought. The aphorisms emerge from a distillation of actual experience into language, a language eminently suited to contain the fruit of spiritual practice. Theory then builds upon language, attempting to formulate a complete metaphysics out of shimmering wisdom drawn from depths where no language could ever reach.

Not only does Patanjali’s theoretical system result from experiential understanding, but it intends to ignite a similar fire for practice in the genuine seeker. To the aspirant who studies it carefully, it provides a map for accessing the spiritual reality directly. Its purpose is practical, not speculative or intellectual. The Yoga Sutra is a tool designed for use. An understanding of the metaphysics it teaches serves primarily to clarify the path towards the actual experience that gave birth to these structures in the first place. Theory is not enough. “Just as a good knowledge of culinary science does not satisfy hunger, neither will the benefits of yoga be realized fully by a mere understanding of the science of its practice.” And so in this work Patanjali teaches a methodical yoga, a systematic approach oriented towards the pinnacle of spiritual practice: direct realization of Ultimate Truth. This method begins and ends with the mind. For the mind is the primary tool the aspirant will employ. The mind is at the same time the seeker, the field of seeking and the ever elusive sought.

As Patanjali shows, the mind (or chitta) holds the key to Ultimate Reality. But the mind can serve either as doorway or barrier, a vehicle for spiritual liberation or an instrument of enslavement. So to return to the original question, “What is yoga?” and Patanjali’s reply, “Yogas chittas vritti nirodhah”, it is apparent what needs clarifying. Without an understanding of “chitta” or Patanjali’s conception of the mind, we have little hope either of answering that question or grasping Patanjali’s enigmatic statement. Patanjali’s conception of the mind has profound philosophical and psychological implications. But most significantly, it places effective yoga practice in a clear framework, guiding the aspirant towards fruitful progress along the path of direct spiritual experience and ultimate liberation.

Before looking directly at Patanjali’s model of the mind, it would be useful (though difficult) for us to put aside any assumptions we may be holding about the nature of the mind based on our cultural conditioning or educational background. It is good to approach Patanjali (and everything else) freshly. This is actually one of Patanjali’s points. The residue of past experiences that the mind acquires through action in life functions like a distorted lens, preventing us from seeing anything as it truly is. What we want to see (or realize) more than anything else through our yoga practice is the nature of our True Identity. But too many things are clouding the picture. A kind of spiritual myopia blocks our awareness of our True Self. How this happens is precisely the issue Patanjali addresses in his conception of the mind.

If I discard all attachment to possessions, family, friends, occupation, preferences, aversions, education, culture, prejudices, belief systems . . . Who am I? What if I detach from my body too . . .? What am I then?

Patanjali provides a framework for understanding these questions. But it is important to remember that his conception of the mind, in all its detail of structure and function, is a model, not the thing itself. A model is like a map. And as this one derives from Patanjali’s own experience, it is very useful to follow. However, as the well-known adage goes, “The map is not the territory.” No matter how useful, it is good to hold this model (any model) lightly, not taking it so literally that its categories get reified into absolutes or dogma.

In Patanjali’s system of duality, reality consists of two separate dimensions: purusha and prakriti. Purusha is pure consciousness, the transcendental Self, the immutable, eternal, attribute-less essence of life. Prakriti is creative energy---essentially everything else, not only physical matter in all its myriad manifestations but ideas, thoughts and subtle energy patterns. All is Prakriti. The world as macrocosm and the mind as microcosm both belong to prakriti, though the essence of both is purusha. The mind—as everything else in the three worlds--has both purusha and prakriti aspects. Because purusha is without attributes, it is difficult to say much about it. It is absolutely beyond the grasp of our senses and intellect, not to mention language. Prakriti, however, can be described in precise detail, and is in the Yoga Sutra. As purusha is pure consciousness, so prakriti is absolute insentience. All consciousness or awareness is the light of purusha shining through the forms of prakriti. Purusha is the witness: pure subject. Like the sun, the light of purusha shines upon the patterns of prakriti, making them luminous and apparent. As creative energy, prakriti is always moving, all manifestation never ceasing its dance of change and transformation. But despite this, the forms of prakriti in themselves remain devoid of consciousness. Prakriti is pure object, a shimmering mirror that the light of purusha illuminates with endlessly changing forms.

Creation occurs through a process of evolution. Alongside the absolute, the transcendence of pure purusha, prakriti rests as potentiality, in a state of apparent nothingness. Out of this most subtle but dynamic state, prakriti evolves, each stage of manifestation progressively more gross or dense until a kind of ladder forms from the Transcendental Self (purusha) to the physical expressions of prakriti in the material world. (Philosophical disputes over the precise workings of this process exist throughout the literature, but they do not concern us here. The general understanding remains constant in all the various interpretations.)

Yoga practice inverses this process. It is evolution in reverse. In yoga, one begins with the physical body and grosser forms of mind and works back through the subtler layers of prakriti to the ultimate source in purusha. Purusha is our true identity—at the core of all manifestation lies the absolute of pure awareness, the true nature of the mind. Vedanta calls this Atman, identical to Brahman, the Ultimate Transcendental Reality. (Atman in the microcosm, Brahman in the macrocosm, but this is only perspective. The Self is everywhere One.) Yoga calls this transcendental reality the purusha, but it is the same thing. The goal of yoga is total realization of this purusha nature, of pure bliss consciousness—our True Identity. This necessarily involves a detachment from all that is finite, temporal and limited, from all that is prakriti.

In its most subtle form as a state of potentiality, prakriti is the undifferentiated world-ground, a vast but still energy field. Though close to purusha, it remains separate. It exists as creative energy in a state of unmanifest quiet. Here the gunas--the three qualities of energy which comprise prakriti--are at rest in perfect equilibrium. Their stirring into movement and imbalance creates the impetus out of which all matter is shaped. This state of unmanifest quiet is called the Undifferentiate, and out of it three categories of actualisation manifest. The mind is a structure (or function) formed out of the movement of the gunas and containing principles belonging to all three categories.

The Buddhi is the highest principle of the mind. It follows from the first actualisation of the world ground and thus belongs to the first category that arises out of the Undifferentiate, called the Differentiate. Buddhi is the principle of awakening, of intelligence, of cognition. It is the seat of wisdom, which reflects the light of purusha for all it cognises. As the principle of mind closest to purusha, its nature is sattvic: luminous and pure with the reflected radiance of pure consciousness. Because of its proximity to the absolute, its orientation tends to be inwards, towards that reality, rather than outwards into the world. Because of this too, perception at the buddhi level does not identify with content. It is the subtlest and highest form of human awareness. Yet even so, according to Patanjali’s absolute dualism, buddhi is still prakriti, insentient in itself and depending upon the light of purusha for all its wisdom.

Following out of the Differentiate, a second level of actualisation occurs, giving rise to the category known as the Unparticularized. Here the individual shape of the mind begins to form, with principles denser than the buddhi, but still more subtle than the ordinary world we recognise with our senses. The principle of asmita or individuation emerges from the unparticularized. As a function of mind it is called the ahamkara. The ahamkara is the “I-maker”. Ego identity--that sense of “me” and the “world” as distinct and separate entities--originates here. Ahamkara turns the buddhi away from pure consciousness and towards the manifest world of continually changing forms. Out of this worldly experience, it fabricates the identity called “I”--a false subject or ego. From the unparticularized emerge as well the five tanmatras or sensory potentials. These are the subtle forms of the five ordinary senses.

Finally, out of the Unparticularized, the third level of actualisation occurs, giving rise to the final category called the Particularized. This category includes most of the objects and functions we recognize in the material world. In the arena of the mind, manas emerges. Manas organizes sensation. Like a central operator, manas coordinates sensory input with memory and muscular/nervous action. The five karma indriyas (organs of action: hands, feet, mouth, genitals, anus) and the five jnana indriyas (organs of knowledge: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch) belong to the Particularized as well. The five elements of physical reality manifest here too--ether, air, fire, water and earth. They give rise to all forms in the material world, everything from cows to clouds, from blood to grass, including of course the physical organs of the body out of which the mind principles function.

As these psychic elements interact with the world of experience through time and space, ordinary mind--with its root in ego-consciousness--comes into being. Patanjali sets forth quite a sophisticated psychology. It is a depth psychology (predating Freud by nearly two millennia!) which includes a theory of the unconscious and the definition of various mental states. It also describes the functional relationship between memory, behaviour and character traits. In this, it is a highly useful psychology that can serve as the theoretical foundation for therapeutic work. As the practice of yoga brings detachment from ego consciousness, a great deal of negative self-material gets released as well. Yoga practice can heal much emotional suffering. Yet yoga is a psychology that never loses sight of the ultimate goal: spiritual transformation. Its vision reaches far beyond the purpose of therapy. Along the path, it may indeed bring positive transformation to the mental states of ordinary life, but its purpose is the ultimate transcendence of ordinary life altogether. The path stops at nothing short of enlightenment itself.

The concept of karma plays a key role in Patanjali’s model of the mind. It explains how the conditioned nature of ordinary life comes into being in the first place and how liberation from it can ever occur. Karma refers to action or the fruit of action. It is based upon the principle of cause and effect: all actions have their logical consequences. It is the same in the Biblical maxim, “As you sow, so shall you reap”. Yet this concept of karma does not imply determinism. From a particular effect, one can deduce the cause; but from the cause, a particular effect cannot be guaranteed. Too many other—nearly infinite—factors are involved. For instance, if you plant tomato seed, you may or may not get tomatoes. Sunshine, soil, water, insects and birds all may influence the outcome. And these elements too depend upon many influences. But one thing is certain: if you grow tomatoes they did not originate from a tulip bulb.

The working out of karma forms a complex, ever-changing web, as prakriti is never still. It is the nature of the mind (as every yoga practitioner knows!) to be forever busy. Sensory impressions from the external world continually bombard the functions of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. And according to Patanjali’s epistemology, cognition is possible only because citta is coloured by both the object and the mind itself. As the mind defines the object, so the object defines the mind. Manas then registers the objects of cognition and controls the response. It does so by drawing from the memory bank of karma stored in the mind.

All behaviour leaves its trace in consciousness. These traces are like “grooves” in the mind, where the memory of actions gets laid down, like the sound vibrations that get imprinted into the vinyl of an old-fashioned record. Each time the record is played, the grooves determine the tune that is heard. These mental imprints are called samskaras in Patanjali’s system. They function as “subliminal activators”, memory traces that encourage a repeat of the past action. Sometimes the process is conscious, but more often it is not. In ordinary, conditioned states of consciousness, the mind functions as if on “automatic pilot”, encountering experience in the external world and responding according to a known pattern.

The repetition of action only serves to deepen the grooves. The traces solidify into tendencies called vasanas. This creates habit energy or the propensity to certain behaviour patterns. The conglomeration of all vasanas forms the karmic deposit (karma-ashaya) of the present life. And this karmic material is like seeds. What has been laid down in the consciousness wants to come to fruition. Throughout life, past karma is in the process of ripening and new karma is being formed by the actions of every day. At death, the reservoir of remaining karma carries over into the next incarnation. This determines the conditions of birth and the circumstances of the next life.

This never-ending cycle is the wheel of samsara, the way of the world, of conditioned existence. It is prakriti dancing. Vedanta calls it maya or delusion. It is delusion because reality gets distorted into a shape determined by personal karma. Habit energy not only ensures the repetition of past action but also determines the kinds of things the senses register. One sees what one is programmed to see. But Patanjali teaches a way off this wheel. It is the practice of Kriya Yoga. Through the two-pronged approach of abhyasa (practice) and vairagya (dispassion), one can understand and transform the workings of one’s mind.

Samsara can be transcended. Finally, this psychology is not at all rigid. It is profoundly freeing, in fact, as it culminates in total liberation from the forms of prakriti, in the state called kaivalya. Along the path, it is also freeing, gradually loosening the vasanas and transforming ordinary life. For the evolving mind that begins to awaken through the practice of yoga, it is possible to consciously choose different action, thereby altering the quality of karma being formed. Patanjali calls this the movement from afflicted to non-afflicted thought patterns.

According to Patanjali, five different thought patterns characterize ordinary mental states. These are the vrittis or whirls, the “fluctuations of consciousness” which yoga aims to suspend. Vrittis are the activity of ego-based consciousness. The five vrittis are listed thus: valid-cognition, misconception, imagination, sleep and memory. Valid-cognition depends upon accurate sense experience. It has three forms: direct perception, inference and reliable testimony. This is the thought pattern of correct knowledge. Of the three, direct perception is the form closest to sensory experience. Here one bites into a fruit and knows through direct sensory contact that it is a peach. Correct knowledge can also derive from inference or the accurate testimony of others. With these, sensory experience is second hand, but still the ultimate source of the valid-cognition. In misconception (the 2nd type of whirl) all this misfires and the result is incorrect knowledge. One incorrectly interprets a sense experience, makes false inference or relies on false testimony. This is the vritti of false knowledge.

With the 3rd whirl, imagination, the process moves inwards to subtler forms of vibration. Here the mind fluctuates with pure conceptualisation, spinning images and fantasies that have no basis in direct sense experience but depend rather upon language.  In sleep, the 4th whirl, the process continues with even less connection to direct sense experience.  In deep sleep, the mind appears empty, but the experience upon awakening of having slept well or poorly clearly relates to some kind of vritti that had been active during sleep, albeit very subtly.  In the 5th whirl, memory, the mind taps into the vasanas or karmic deposits. Of all the vrittis, memory is closest to the unconscious. The store of past actions (from this and maybe even previous lives) feeds the processes of dream, daydream and imagination, supplying raw material in the form of images. Yet memory in itself remains most subtle and deep. These are the whirls most difficult to suspend.

Through meditation, the yogi strives to modify, control or suspend these five types of vrittis. If this state can be maintained, it leads to samprajnata samadhi, the lower form of samadhi, known as object-oriented ecstasy. It is called “object-oriented” because some vrittis remain. Though the vrittis of ordinary consciousness are suspended, sattvic vrittis are present—radiant and pure and whispering of purusha. Not until asamprajnata samadhi, which is “objectless” or without vrittis of any kind, is the goal of yoga reached. However, in the lower states of samadhi, sattvic mind can make for a very blissful existence. Though vrittis still occur, they are no longer afflicted. It is these non-afflicted vrittis that provide the yogi with the momentum to reach full samadhi. These positive thought waves have great benefit, as they facilitate the process of yoga.

It is through the mind that the mind is set free. The sattvic vrittis of samprajnata samadhi enhance the desire for total liberation. And right action follows, the kind of behaviour that leads towards the ultimate transcendence of all vrittis. It is important to distinguish between afflicted and non-afflicted vrittis. And each of the five types of vrittis, in principle, can be either afflicted or non-afflicted. Afflicted vrittis perpetuate the wheel of samsara. Non-afflicted vrittis contain the seeds for the transcendence of all vrittis. They infuse everyday life with a high degree of sattvic energy and culminate in their own cessation.

So what causes the ordinary vrittis of the mind? What are the factors that keep one bound in conditioned existence? Here in a sense is the heart of Patanjali’s psychology. Human suffering arises out of ordinary consciousness itself, Patanjali explains, where attachment to the forms of prakriti obscures the true reality--purusha. Patanjali identifies five qualities of mind that create and maintain these vrittis of ordinary consciousness. They are called the five kleshas or sources of affliction. They are the root cause of the “misidentification with the modifications of the mind” which yoga practice aims to eradicate.

Avidya is the first klesha. It is the source of all the others. Translated often as ignorance, but implying much more, avidya is the opposite of vidya, which means seeing. True sight sees the truth, and that is vidya. True sight means realizing Ultimate Reality. Its opposite, avidya, is thus a most severe type of blindness. Avidya is spiritual ignorance, the greatest and most fundamental cause of suffering. All the other sources of affliction derive from avidya. Yoga practice aims to transform avidya into vidya. This is what “yoga chittas vrittis nirodha” indicates.

Asmita, the second klesha, derives directly from avidya. Asmita is the formation of ego-identity. This is the ahamkara function of the mind, which understands all reality in terms of itself. Because of avidya, the mind identifies with its own particulars. It forms a “self” out of the physical body, the fluctuating content of the mind, and the store of karma and memory. Identity can extend beyond into possessions, associations and all the particulars of a certain life. These things that are relative, changing and finite become reified into a self, obscuring the true Self.

Raga and dvesa are the third and fourth kleshas, attachment and aversion. Together, these two factors help create and maintain the ego-identity. Attachment and aversion are like the two antennae of ordinary consciousness. The ego encounters everything in the world in these terms: either good for me (attraction) or bad for me (aversion). All meaning and worth of the thing encountered derives from its reference to the ego-identity. I like someone because he is useful to me, dislike someone because he offends me . . . Most of which does not fit into either category gets ignored. The ego does not usually register that which is irrelevant to its interest. Most awareness thus centres round this fabricated identity, the ego. Attraction and aversion help solidify its form, as in “I am a person who loves dogs and horses . . . or I am a person who hates action films and black coffee . . .”

Abhinivesa is the fifth klesha. This final cause of suffering is the will-to-live. More precisely, it is a clinging to the life that the ego understands or the fear of death. It includes a strong attachment to the false self’s activity of attraction and aversion and a deep fear of the dissolution of this fabricated identity. Thus, it can imply both a fear of literal death as well as a resistance to the process of yoga. For yoga practice strives to undo the false identity. With abhinivesa, one clings to the vrittis of ordinary consiousness and lacks faith or trust in anything more. Here one is truly “stuck”. Even though ordinary consciousness cannot realize purusha, it can still trust that greater reality is possible. Without the faith that something more is possible, how can one strive to attain it?

An answer can be found in Patanjali. It is called Kriya Yoga—a method of mind transformation that undermines the hold of the kleshas. Through this yoga--and all the particulars of abhyasa (practice) and vairagya (dispassion)--the yogi strives to eradicate the kleshas and dissolve the mind into its purusha nature. This is what yoga is about, and what the Yoga Sutra defines so methodically. As yoga practice involves the movement from afflicted to non-afflicted vrittis, it can bring much healing, both to the individual yogi and to this suffering world. But the practice does not end there. It is not until the end of all vrittis--in the state of ultimate liberation called kaivalya--that yoga reaches it final purpose. The mind is an instrument programmed to contain the seed of its own transcendence. For the ultimate goal is always beyond the mind in pure purusha awareness.

Whether it is possible to reach this state and still be alive in a body is an interesting question. How can a mind and body function without “thought-waves”? Is the goal the total cessation of vrittis (death?) or the cessation of misidentification with these “thought-waves” (death of ego-consciousness)? These questions make the study of the Sanskrit texts a fascinating quest. In classical yoga, the body drops away soon after complete enlightenment. Vedanta recognizes the state of jivan-mukta, enlightenment in this life. Yet despite these different understandings, the path of practice remains the same. And perhaps at some point of awareness even these distinctions disappear, as if “life” and “death” are mere categories of samsara and enlightenment lies beyond them both, in a state the rational mind could never grasp. “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” But yoga is not complete until that Ultimate Reality subsumes everything.


Eliot, T.S. The Four Quartets. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1971.

Feuerstein, Georg. The Philosophy, History, and Literature of Yoga. Manton, CA: Yoga Research and

Education Center, 2003.

Feuerstein, Georg, trans. The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, Int., 1989.

Feuerstein, Georg. The Yoga Tradition. Prescott , AZ: Hohm Press, 2001.

Jois, Sri K. Pattabhi. Yoga Mala. New York: Patanjali Yoga Shala, 1999.

Pradhavananda, Swami and Christopher Isherwood. How to know God. So. CA: Vedanta Press, 1981.

Varenne, Jean. Yoga and the Hindu Tradition. Translated from the French by Derek Coltman. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1973.

Vishnu-Devananda, Swami. Meditations and Mantras. London: Om Lotus Publishing Co, 1978.

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

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Yoga Mala. (New York: Patanjali Yoga Shala, 1999) p. 17

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1971) p.14

© Marianne Jacuzzi 2005

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