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The Psychology and Philosophy of Yoga

An introduction to the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali.

Key points

  • Yoga is one of the six orthodox schools of Indian philosophy.
  • Yoga borrows the metaphysics of one of the other schools, Samkhya.
  • However, whereas Samkhya emphasizes knowledge as the path to liberation, Yoga emphasizes discipline.
Pixabay/Mooremeditation/Public domain
Source: Pixabay/Mooremeditation/Public domain

A darshana is an outlook, a philosophy, literally, a “vision.” The term darshana is especially associated with the six orthodox schools of Indian philosophy, the so-called shaddarshana, or “six visions.” What makes them orthodox, and therefore Hindu, is that they accept the authority of the Vedas. With good reason, the shaddarshana are often presented in pairs: Samkhya-Yoga, Nyaya-Vaisheshika, and Mimamsa-Vedanta. In this post, I shall, of course, be focussing on Samkhya-Yoga.

The Samkhya School

The founder of the Samkhya school is held to be Kapila, who lived, perhaps, in the sixth century BCE. Little is known about him. He is sometimes described as an avatar of Vishnu or the grandson of Brahma. He is mentioned by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita as the greatest of sages: “Amongst the gandharvas I am Chitrath, and among the siddhas, I am sage Kapila.” According to Puranic lore, his meditation produced such intense inner heat that, when they disturbed him, he incinerated the Sagarputras, the 60,001 sons of King Sagara, simply by opening his eyes.

In the Buddhist tradition, the students of Kapila built the Shakya capital of Kapilavastu. The Buddha, who was raised in Kapilavastu, was therefore steeped in Samkhya philosophy, explaining the affinities between Samkhya and Buddhism.

Kapila is held to have authored the Samkhya Sutra, although the extant text appears to be medieval in origin. Instead, the school’s primary text is the Samkhyakarika by Ishvarakrishna, who lived in the third or fourth century CE.

In the first verse, Ishvarakrishna states the aim of Samkhya: to eliminate the three forms of dukkha (suffering): internal, from physical and mental disease; external, from outside threats, especially other people; and divine, that is, from natural disasters.

Samkhya is a radical dualism that holds that the universe is made up of two independent, infinite, and eternal realities: Purusha (souls) and Prakriti (matter or nature). The Purushas are conscious but have no attributes. They are pure ‘witness consciousness.’ Prakriti is composed of the three gunas (qualities or tendencies of matter), sattva (preservation, harmony), rajas (creation, passion), and tamas (destruction, apathy).

Initially, the gunas are in equilibrium. But at its approach, Purusha disturbs this equilibrium in favour of rajas, and this imbalance sets off material creation.

Comparisons With Western Dualism

Unlike Western dualism, which is between mind and matter, Samkhyan dualism is between self and matter—with “matter” encompassing most of what Westerners would consider “mind” (intellect, ego, emotions, etc.)—everything, in fact, except witness consciousness, of which mind is the instrument.

Also, unlike Western dualism, Samkhyan dualism is atheistic or agnostic. Although an orthodox school, Samkhya is remarkably silent about God and the Vedas.

The Samkhyan Account of Creation

At the approach of Purusha, undifferentiated Prakriti evolves 23 tattvas (elements, aspects), first buddhi (intelligence), and from buddhi ahamkara (ego or self-consciousness).

Under the influence of sattva guna, ahamkara yields the five organs of sense (eyes, ears, nose, skin, tongue), the five organs of action (arms, legs, speech, organs of elimination, organs of creation), and manas (mind).

Then, under the influence of tamas guna, ahamkara yields the five subtle elements (sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste), from which the five material elements (earth, air, water, fire, ether) emerge.

Notice that the material world is last in the order of creation. Its evolution from the five senses suggests that the world is an illusion, although this is never explicitly stated.

Manas has a special role in mediating between the ten organs, the five senses, and the world without. Being of Prakriti, buddhi, ahamkara, and manas are not conscious. However, they appear to be conscious and are set into motion by proximity with Purusha—functioning, as it were, by reflected consciousness.

The Samkhyan Account of Liberation

Adding Purusha and Prakriti to the 23 tattvas makes a total of 25 tattvas—of which 24 are of Prakriti. Nonetheless, it is for the sake of Purusha that the differentiation occurs, to provide it with experience and, in time, with liberation (moksha). By reflecting the consciousness of Purusha, Prakriti is showing Purusha to itself.

Purusha and Prakriti are like a lame man and a blind man, lost in the wilderness. The blind man carries the lame man, who guides his steps. Both are looking for their way home, to moksha, when they will part ways. But having never traveled, the lame man is avid of experience and so enthralled by his adventure that he forgets about his destination.

To be consistent with the universal law of karma, Samkhya assumes that a Purusha that is bonded to Prakriti (that is, a jiva), has two bodies: a gross, mortal body, and a subtle body made up of the higher functions which transmigrates according to past merit. The continuity of the subtle body enables the Purusha to keep on learning through numerous incarnations.

Final liberation consists in the realization of the separateness of Purusha and Prakriti. This involves a process of involution, or “going back to the womb”—that is, reversing, through intellect and understanding, the process of evolution from the material elements back to undifferentiated Prakriti and beyond.

In short, salvation consists in counting backwards.

The Yoga School

Samkhya exerted such a profound influence on Yoga that the two schools are sometimes merged as Samkhya-Yoga. But whereas Samkhya emphasizes knowledge and discrimination as the path to liberation, Yoga rather emphasizes discipline.

Although Yoga essentially borrows the metaphysics of Samkhya, it introduces a twenty-sixth tattva, namely, Ishvara, or “the Lord”—for which reason it has been called “Theistic Samkhya.” The nature of “Ishvara” is open to interpretation, but it may be regarded as a special Purusha that is unentangled and, therefore, inactive.

The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali

In the second century BCE, or perhaps the fifth century CE, Patanjali collected the ideas around yoga in the Yoga Sutra. These 196 verses became the foundational text of Yoga, which, towards the end of the first millennium, began to be mentioned as a separate school.

Patanjali’s synthesis influenced all other schools of Hindu philosophy, which regard it as authoritative. It is sometimes referred to as Raja Yoga (Royal Yoga) or Ashtanga Yoga (Eight-Limbed Yoga) to distinguish it from the many other forms of yoga, such as Jnana, Karma, Bhakti, Mantra, and Tantra—which are, of course, more complementary than mutually exclusive.

The Yoga Sutra has four sections: Samahdi (Concentration), Sadhana (Practice), Vibhuti (Yogic or Magical Powers), and Kaivalya (Isolation or Liberation). In the first section, Patanjali defines yoga as “the cessation of mental fluctuations” (chitta vritti nirodha)—with chitta (mind) assimilated in the Samkhyan system to buddhi, ahamkara, and manas. In the third section, he warns against practicing yoga for the perverted purpose of acquiring yogic powers—suggesting that this sort of thing may have been common.

Ashtanga or Eight-Limbed Yoga

The eight stages of Patanjali’s Yoga are:

  1. Yama (abstinence or restraint)
  2. Niyama (discipline or observances)
  3. Asana (‘seat’, posture)
  4. Pranayama (breath control)
  5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
  6. Dharana (concentration of the mind on some object)
  7. Dhyana (steady meditation on that object) and
  8. Samadhi (absorption, ecstatic union with the ultimate).

The first two stages are ethical preparations. Yama involves abstinence from injury, falsehood, stealing, lust, and avarice. Niyama involves purity or cleanliness, contentment, austerity, study, and devotion to God.

The next two stages are physical preparations, each involving a series of exercises to remove physical or bodily distractions.

The fifth stage involves taking control of the mind by emptying it of impressions.

The remaining three stages, which may take several lifetimes to perfect, aim at increasingly heightened states of awareness and return.

According to Patanjali, the five kleshas (poisons, obstacles to Yoga and liberation) are ignorance, ego, attachment or desire, aversion to unpleasant things or truths, and fear of death and desire to live.

Final Remarks

The aim of yoga, and ascetic practice in general, is essentially to react against ordinary human habits, which entangle us, or our Purusha, with Prakriti, to the extent that Purusha identifies with Prakriti and more particularly with the restless chitta and its manifold modifications.

This is a far cry from the yoga practised in the West as a form of physical culture, with postures borrowed from Hatha Yoga and optional spiritual sprinkling for stress relief. Even Hatha Yoga is about a lot more than that.

Read more in Indian Mythology and Philosophy.


Bhagavad Gita 10.26.

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