Mircea Eliade wrote extensively about the centrality of light as the constant religious image appearing throughout the many traditions he studied from around the world over a period of decades. In reading the Yoga Sūtra, the core text of the tradition that deﬁned Eliade as a leading scholar of the history of religions, themes of light and luminosity pervade the text, peering out in each of the book’s four sections. This chapter will follow Patañjali’s treatment of light, lightness, and clarity as a constant root metaphor for the process of yogic attainment. In the process, I will address a fundamental persistent question that arises in regard to Yoga’s approach to the lived world. Can Yoga as a philosophical system be seen as providing an avenue for active engagement with the world without abrogating its teleology? Can nirodha (restraint) and kaivalyam (aloneness or isolation) be seen as compatible with an ongoing relationship with the ﬂuctuations of the mind?
One generally approaches the Yoga tradition by looking at its self-deﬁnition: yogaś-citta-vṛtti-nirodha.1 This can be translated as “Yoga is the restraint of the mind’s ﬂuctuations,” leading to an overall philosophy and practice that emphasizes control and perhaps even suppression. Following this experience, one is said to reside in one’s own nature2, an allusion to puruṣa, the eternally free, ever-present witness consciousness. Though this remains the deﬁnitive explanation of Yoga, I would like to suggest that the living application of this experience can be understood by examining the places in Patanjali where he discusses the “shining forth” or discernment of puruṣa or witness consciousness, referred to in each of the four sections (pādas) of the text. For most scholars, this event underscores the so-called dualistic world abnegating nature of the Yoga system. It is generally supposed that the world of active engagement ceases in order for the puruṣa to be discerned. In this chapter, building on themes introduced in chapter 2, we will explore how the Yoga Sūtra presents a much fuller and alluring account of the process of lightening one’s karma than is generally acknowledged, a path that inherently aﬃrms the world while seeking a state of transparency and luminosity.
PĀDA ONE: BECOMING THE CLEAR JEWEL
The Yoga Sūtra, as with most Indian philosophical texts, announces its purposes3, deﬁnes its telos4 [as given above], and then outlines its theory of knowledge and reality.5 The description of actual Yoga practice does not begin until sūtra I:12, where Patañjali emphasizes ongoing practice (abhyāsa) and the cultivation of dispassion (vairāgya). In the Sāṃkya system of Īśvarakṛṣna, only knowledge (jñāna) leads to liberation. Patañjali puts forth repeated practice of Yoga techniques combined with dispassion as the ﬁrst of many eﬀective tools for attaining the state of Yoga. Dispassion (vairāgya) is said to lead to (or proceed from, as will be discussed) the discernment of puruṣa: “That highest [release]—thirstlessness for the guṇas—proceeds from the discernment (khyāti) of puruṣa.”6 Here we see a theme that occurs throughout the text: ﬁrst seeing things as no more than combinations of guṇas, then ascending from heaviness (tamas), through passion (rajas) to lightness (sattva) and then ﬁnally dissociating oneself even from this lightest state of purity. At that moment, the goal of luminosity has been attained: prakṛti is held in abeyance and, the witness consciousness alone stands.
Patañjali describes four other instances in the ﬁrst pāda of this clariﬁed witness consciousness being revealed without insisting that the world itself dissolve. The first involves the Brahma Vihāra, the famous ethical observances of friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity borrowed into Yoga from the Buddhist tradition.7 It could be argued that this “clariﬁcation of the mind” (citta-prasāda) refers only to an intermediary state, that this is merely a preparatory place to higher states of consciousness. However, if we look at this state in the context of the Pāli Canon, we can see that this is not the case. During his lifetime, the Buddha proclaimed that ﬁve hundred of his disciples achieved liberation or nirvana and declared them to be arhats. Identical with the formula given in the Sāṃkhya Kārikā, each arhat declared, “I am not this, there is no self, I have nothing.” Subsequent to this attainment, the Buddha described each as dwelling in the “Brahma Vihāra,” the abode or sanctuary of the religiously accomplished. Richard Gombrich writes that this was an assertion of the comportment of the enlightened ones, not merely a method of meditation.8 I would suggest that this shows a process of active engagement whereby “clariﬁcation of mind” becomes an epithet for the applied and active insight undertaken on the part of the accomplished yogin in daily aﬀairs.
The next reference to luminosity can be found in Yoga Sūtra I:36: “Or having sorrowless illumination.” Though brief, this attainment indicates that a ﬂooding of light (jyotis) has occurred, through which sorrow has been expelled. Again, the Buddhist allusions in this passage are clear, as well as an indication of a state of being or awareness that does not nihilistically deny the redeemability of that which can be perceived.
This brings me what is perhaps my favorite sūtra, one that to my estimation has been both overlooked and misinterpreted:9 “[The accomplished mind] of diminished ﬂuctuations, like a clear jewel assuming the color of any near object, has unity among grasper, grasping, and grasped.”10 This sūtra juxtaposes two key images: the state of mind as having diminished ﬂuctuations and the quality of a clear jewel. First, the linkage between diminished ﬂuctuations and citta vṛtti nirodha must be acknowledged. This sūtra deﬁnes the several processes for controlling the mind and achieving various forms of samāpatti (unity) and samādhi (absorption). This can be seen as not diﬀerent from the process of nirodha, due to the direct reference to the diminishment of ﬂuctuations. Yet this does not lead to the elimination of the mind or objects or the processes of perception. Instead, a specialized form of awareness—dare we say puruṣa—is revealed in which the separation between grasper, grasping, and grasped dissolves. Though Vyāsa suggests that this refers to three diﬀerent foci of awareness, I would prefer to place the emphasis on the term samāpatti. In this state of unity (samāpatti), ego, senses, and objects lose their separation from one another revealing a state akin to kinaesthesia, a state of being whelmed or absorbed—in short, moving into the depths of mystical at-one-ment. The world itself does not cease; merely the barriers that fence the self from world and world from self disappear. This verse, embedded innocuously at the three-quarter point, deﬁnes and, in my thinking, gives high proﬁle and importance to the processes of samādhi (savitarkā, nirvitarkā, savicārā, nirvicārā) that follow.
Ṛtam refers to the peak Vedic experience wherein the purposes and intent of sacriﬁce (yajña) are fulﬁlled, resulting in a moment of perfect equipoise.12 Earlier I mentioned the ascent from tamas through rajas to sattva. One has ascended from unity with gross objects, ﬁrst with thought and then without thought, to unity with subtle objects, presumably the vāsanās or residues or saṃskāras of past action that condition our personality and behavior. As one gains facility in this state of unity, “clarity,” earlier associated with the Brahma Vihāra and the notion of an authentic or somehow puriﬁed or elevated self arises. Again, this does not state that the world has been discarded or disengaged. In fact, the reference to ṛta proclaims that this accomplishment leads to a wisdom through which the ﬂow of life (the goal of the Vedic philosophy) may reach its fullness.
PĀDA TWO: THE SEER AND THE SHEDDING OF LIGHT
Patañjali summarizes the Sāṃkya system in verses 15–28 of the second section or sādhana pāda. In the process, he emphasizes the purpose and function of the manifest world, the realm of the seen. In a nearly direct quote from the Sāṃkhya Kārikā, Patañjali writes, “The seer only sees; though pure, it appears intentional. The nature of the seen is only for the purpose of that (seer). When its purpose is done, it disappears; otherwise it does not disappear due to being common to others.”13 First, I want to establish the relationships among the process of seeing, the seer, and luminosity. According to the Sāṃkhya scheme, a correspondence exists between the subtle elements, contained within the body, the sense organs manifested through the body, and the gross elements (mahā bhūta-s). The nose and smelling correspond to the earth, the mouth and tasting correspond to water, and the eyes and seeing correspond to light or tejas, the element that illumines and extends warmth. In the Puruṣa Sūkta, the two eyes correlate to the sun and the moon. Hence, in the Sāṃkhya system, the function of the seer is to literally cast light upon the things of the world. Although this may seem to be a childlike inversion of how we have come to understand physical principles, this perspective nonetheless reveals certain wisdom: there can be no world that has meaning apart from one’s perception of it. This does not deny the reality of the external world but underscores the importance of perspective and relationality in any endeavor or circumstance.
According to the psychology of Sāṃkhya and Yoga, the predispositions of karma exist in the seen, not in the seer.14 Hence, though the limited ego claims to be the owner of personality, in fact personality and action can only emerge due to the presence of what the Chāndogya Upaniṣad refers to as the “unseen seer.” Everything that can be perceived is perceived for the sake of that seer, but, mistakably, the limited self assumes that the world exists for the sake of its own limited gratiﬁcation, hence ensnaring the individual within its limitations. When the seen sees that “she” is not the seer, that is, when the purpose of the realm of activity is seen as providing experience to the unseen seer, then the “seen” and all the attachment it connotes disappears. One stands alone in silence, liberated. This takes place through a process of “unfaltering discriminatory discernment,” a term that receives further mention in the third and fourth sections,15 as will be discussed later.
Images of light appear in the two places in the second pāda: the accomplishment of purity (śauca) and the performance of breath control (prāṇāyāma). Purity, of all the disciplines (yama) and observances (niyama), holds the distinction of bringing one to the point of perfect sattva. It is considered to be an apt preparation for “the vision of the self” and generates a more philosophically laden description than any of the other nine disciplines or observances: “From purity arises disassociation from one’s own body, noncontact with others, purity of sattva, cheerfulness, onepointedness, mastery of the senses, and ﬁtness for the vision of the self.”16 This discussion of purity begins with a description of the process of turning away from physical attraction, the most obvious aspect of tamas. With increased purity, one gains a host of beneﬁts: increased sattva, a cheerful disposition, enhanced focus, mastery of the senses (which receives fuller treatment in the third section), and ﬁnally “ﬁtness for the vision of the self.” This last attainment places one again in the realm that links vision, the luminous sense, with the self.
A double entendre can be found in each of these references. On the one hand, vision of the self can refer to looking at and seeing the self, which, as we will see in IV:19, cannot happen because the self can never become an object. That leaves us with the alternate reading, the other part of the double meaning: construing the compound here as a genitive tat puruṣa compound, translated as “the self ’s vision.” The practice of purity holds the allure of the physical realm in abeyance, allowing for the seer to simply see. This accomplishment is the “vision of the self,” referring to a clariﬁed process of perception rather than the notion that the self is seen as a ﬁxed substance.
The next of the eight limbs to include reference to light and luminosity occurs in the discussion of prāṇāyāma. The fourth state of prāṇāyāma, somewhat similar to the description of purity above, entails “withdrawal from external and internal conditions.”17 With this inwardness comes an intensiﬁcation of sattva. Elliptically referring perhaps to visionary experiences articulated in the later Haṭha Yoga texts, Patañjali writes, “Thus, the covering of light is dissolved.” This “enlightening” experience then allows for enhanced power and concentration: “And there is ﬁtness of the mind organ for concentrations.”18 In the prior two chapters we discussed experiences that arise from the joint application of breath control and the cultivation of inwardness. In those sūtras, breathing exercises set the stage for an illuminative experience.
PĀDA THREE: THE SHINING
Splendor and radiance can be found in the description of Patañjali’s eighth limb, samādhi, in the third or Vibhūti pāda. Echoing the earlier reference to the clear gem and to the point or moment where the purpose of the seen has been completed, Patañjali writes, “When the purpose alone shines forth as if empty of own form, that indeed is samādhi.” When the purpose—that is, all things exist for the sake of providing experience to the seer—is known, then a crystalline luminosity, a seeing-things-as-they-really-are takes place. And from the mastery of this, again recalling the description of wisdom in I:48, arises the “splendor of wisdom.”19 This level of samādhi clearly allows for a world engaged through the aegis of wisdom.
Nine additional sūtras in the third section include references to light and illumination. Applying saṃyama on the sun brings “knowledge of the world.”20 By gazing upon that which the sun illuminates, one gains an understanding of the world. Moving into interior reﬂection on the cakras, concentrating on the highest cakra, “the light in the head” brings about “vision of the perfected ones,” the siddha-s or invisible helpmates to those who practice Yoga. The next reference, in the midst of a description of various fabulous attainments and powers, brings us back to the philosophical purpose of the text: “When there is no distinction of intention between the pure puruṣa and the perfect sattva, there is experience for the purpose of the other (puruṣa); from saṃyama on purpose being from the self, there is knowledge of puruṣa.”21 Again “knowledge of puruṣa” begs to be interpreted as “puruṣa’s knowledge.” Strictly speaking, puruṣa cannot possess anything, even knowledge, but this allows a process of alluding to an elevated state of consciousness without allowing anyone to claim it.
In the descriptions of light as associated with saṃyama, Patañjali employs three images in quick succession. The ﬁrst states that the power of breath, speciﬁcally “mastery of the middle breath” yields radiance (jvalanam).22 This might refer to the physical result of being well oxygenated, when, for instance, one’s cheeks become rosy after a brisk walk or some form of physical exertion. The second image talks about concentrating on the lightness of cotton (laghutūla), which allows one to move through space (ākāśa-gamanam).23 By identifying with something as ﬂimsy as cotton, one takes on its qualities of free movement. The third image talks of moving beyond even the body toward the “great discarnate” (mahāvideha).24 This reference links to the earlier discussion on rising above the manifest aspects of prakṛti.25 In the ﬁrst mention of the discarnate (videha), a desire to become again involved with prakṛti lingers.26 In contrast, in the third section, this concentration on the discarnate results in the destruction of the covering of light (prakāśa-āvaraṇa-kṣayaḥ),27a much more positive assessment of this yogic accomplishment. This also refers back to the prior pāda, where the practice of breath control also removes the covering of light.28
The remainder of the third section discusses how one’s sattva increases successively. First one masters the elements (bhūta-jaya).29 Then one attains perfection of the body (kāya-saṃpad).30 Next one rises above the body to gain mastery over the sense organs (indriya-jaya).31 This results in mastery over that which causes the world to become manifest, the latent aspect of prakṛti (pradhāna-jaya).32 At this level, as in the stage of nirvicāra samādhi mentioned in the ﬁrst section, one is able to control the impulses (saṃskāras) that normally condition human craving and the pursuit of desire. Hence, as in the Upaniṣads, where one rises from the food-made body to the mind-made body to the emotion-body and ﬁnally attains the self, one ﬁrst masters the relationship with the external elements, then one’s body, then one’s senses, including the mind, and gains control over the emotions. However, the ﬁnal attainment requires an even higher level, deﬁned as the “discernment of the diﬀerence between sattva and puruṣa.” The ﬁnal verses of the third section nicely underscore the need for increasing levels of lightness, until one reaches kaivalyam:
THE FOURTH PĀDA: LUMINOSITY
The process of inverse evolution (prati-prasava) leading to increasing levels of luminosity is described yet again in the fourth section of the Yoga Sūtra. The ﬁrst concept that indicates a special relationship between the puriﬁed sattva of prakṛti and the puruṣa is the concept of “prayojakam,” the initiator. Patañjali describes this function of prakṛti as “the one mind among many that is distinct from activity.”41 This would probably be the intellect or buddhi in its most subtle form of sattva, which we saw above as associated with kaivalyam.42 All mind is in some sense active but this “one mind” is like puruṣa and hence pure. In the next verse, Patañjali, again elliptically, refers to an unspeciﬁed something that arises from mind that, despite its being “born” and hence in the realm of prakṛti, he nonetheless refers to as pure (anāśayam): “There, what is born of meditation is without residue.”43 This reﬂects the theme in I:50: “The saṃskāra born of it obstructs other saṃskāras.” This state of purity does not obliterate the world but in some way perhaps transforms it.
The next verse pertains to notions of color, which can only be perceived through the sense of sight, and hence require some form of illumination:
This verse discusses what the Jains refer to as the “leśyas” or combinations of karmic impulses that obscure the luminosity (the energy, consciousness, and bliss) of the soul, referred to in Jainism as “jīva.” In Jainism, these colors vary from black to blue to red to yellow to white; the perfected Jaina (siddha) rises above all colors in the state referred to as “kevala.” Patañjali refers to the varieties of color as mixed and, like Jainism, suggests that the perfected one goes beyond all coloration.
Continuing the theme of colors, Patañjali later suggests that the attitude one takes toward objects depends upon the “anticipation” or projection of the mind that perceives any given object. Appealing to one of the classic proofs given in the Sāṃkhya Kārikā for the existence of puruṣa, he states that all these changes are due to the “changelessness of their master, puruṣa.”45 To complete this argument about the relationship between that which is objectively seen and the seer, he states that the object does not possess revelatory powers but becomes illumined only through the presence of the seer. Only through the seer can the world be known, although the seen, particularly in its mistaken assumption of ego identity, seeks to claim all experience. Patañjali advances this argument as follows:
The seen can never see itself. Light ultimately comes from the highest source of illumination, which stands separate, even aloof, illuminating the things of the world through its gaze. When one sees that one does not really see, then the compulsion to grasp and cling to the ego identity ceases. Patañjali writes that “the one who sees the distinction discontinues the cultivation of self-becoming.”49 Having observed and understood that the world appears to be as one assumes it to be because of the structures of one’s mental conditioning, one gains the liberating perspective that allows a retreat from the self-generating status quo.
The conclusion of the Yoga Sūtra describes this process of heightened awareness as a gradual letting go of being invested in the continuation of the world as self-construed. This results in the cryptic description of a liberated state, deﬁned as the “cloud of dharma samādhi.” This has been interpreted, appropriately, in many ways. On the one hand, the term dharma can be seen in light of its Buddhist counterpart, as a constituent of existence. This usage can also be found in the only other passages where Patañjali uses the term. In III:13 and 14, Patañjali discusses dharma as the nature or essential quality of a thing and says that things take on their particular character due to the nature of the dharma. In the level of dharma-megha samādhi, this essence or nature has been puriﬁed and lightened to the point where rather than manifesting in the shape of a concrete reality, it remains as evanescent as the water vapor in a cloud, indicating that it perhaps has been resolved to its most subtle or sattvika form. In terms of the technical Jaina usage of ‘dharma,’ it has attained its most reﬁned state of movement. And in the traditional, nontechnical Hindu sense of ‘dharma,’ this state might indicate that all unvirtuous activities have been overcome and that one dwells only in a dharma characterized by the sattva-guṇa. The following verse seems to support this ﬁnal interpretation: “From that, there is cessation of aﬄicted action,”50 which causes Vyāsa to state that one has attained living liberation, the only reference to this cherished state in his entire commentary.
In either case, the progression from gross to subtle culminates to completion in this last verse of the Yoga Sūtra. The process of outward manifestation (pariṇāma) has been reversed, called back to its origin. The inertia that leads to tamas has been reversed through the practices of Yoga. The guṇas, even sattva itself, have performed their function of providing experience and liberation for the seer, the puruṣa, the original source of illumination, although, paradoxically, puruṣa never actively illumines. This returns the Yoga practice to the state referred to in the third sūtra of the ﬁrst pāda, the state of standing in svarūpa. This is not, however, a static state. The conclusion of the Yoga Sūtra does not require the cessation of all luminosity but instead avers to the notion of an ongoing presence of consciousness, referred to as “citi śakti,” the power of higher awareness. The Yoga Sūtra does not conclude with a negation of materiality but with a celebration of the ongoing process of dispassionate yet celebratory consciousness.
Just as in the description of prāṇāyāma removing the covering of light,57 so also this concluding phase of Yoga philosophy brings an end to all impurity (tadā sarva-āvaraṇa-mala-apetasya).58 It does not, however, mean that the world itself ceases.
In studies of Hindu thought, it is diﬃcult to escape the notion, promulgated by the language of the tradition itself as well as Christian critiques of the tradition, that Hinduism denies the world. The language of the Buddha and Rāmakṛṣṇa alike call for a leaving behind of the world in search of higher values. However, does this really mean the rejection of the world? Does it mean that the world should only be condemned and shunned? Or does it mean that only the impure aspects of the world must be transcended? The concluding verses of the Yoga Sūtra certainly seem to allow for the engagement of a puriﬁed sense of one’s place in the world, through which one is established and living in a puriﬁed consciousness, having understood and reversed the lure of the lower guṇas.
In recent studies of attitudes toward nature, several authors, including Callicott and Nelson, have suggested that Hindu philosophy negates the world and has helped cultivate an attitude of indiﬀerence or even contempt for nature. In a long-term study of the life and work of Sunderlal Bahuguna, a leading environmental activist in India, George James reaches quite a diﬀerent conclusion about what some consider to be an ambiguous attitude toward the natural world. Referring to the Chipko movement for forest preservation, James writes:
Chipko is unquestioningly a movement for the negation of the world. The world it negates, however, is the world of scientiﬁc forestry and of politicians, technicians, and contractors within whose knowledge nature is reduced to a commodity in a system of economic exchange that leaves the people destitute and dispossessed, that discounts their material needs and the religious life that supports them. The asceticism of Chipko is a renunciation of this world and its promises. It is also certainly correct that Hinduism inspired and grounded the Chipko movement. But the Hinduism of the Chipko activist diﬀers widely from Callicott’s characterization of Hinduism as a religion that views the empirical world as morally negligible and judges it as contemptible, because it deludes the soul into crediting appearance and pursuing false ends. For the Chipko movement, the false ends are the ends of scientiﬁc forestry: resin, timber, and foreign exchange; those of the Chipko agitation are soil, water, and pure air. The Hinduism of Chipko hears the claims of this world [of development] and, like the jivanmukta, knows that they are false.59
The world of change must be quelled to reveal the also-real luminous silence.
As Ortega y Gasset so beautifully articulated, we live in a world invented by our ancestors.60 The world of Yoga, as articulated by Patañjali, has shaped many of the values and assumptions of South Asian life. For too long, without carefully examining the text, Yoga has been characterized as a form of world-rejecting asceticism. Yoga does not reject the reality of the world, nor does it condemn the world, only the human propensity to misidentify with the more base aspects of the world. The path of Yoga, like the Chipko movement, seeks not to deny the beauty of nature but seeks to purify our relationship with it by correcting mistaken notions and usurping damaging attachments. Rather than seeking to condemn the world to a state of irredeemable darkness, Yoga seeks to bring the world and, most important, the seers of the world, to a state of luminosity.
This article is republished here with permission from the author. Previously published as chapter six of Christopher Key Chapple’s Yoga and the Luminous: Patañjali’s Spiritual Path to Freedom, State University of New York Press, Albany, 2008.