Usually we find the end at the end.
That’s why it’s called “The End.” But sometimes, paradoxically, we find the end in the middle.
This curious phenomenon arises in the case of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
In one sense we find that Patanjali describes the experience of ultimate liberation in the last aphorism of his Yoga Sutras. It’s a captivating description because he uses the phrase “citi-saktih”—the power of consciousness—as the thing that’s svarupa-pratistha: situated in its own essential nature.
What I find fascinating about this sutra is a distinction being made between the person—purusa—and the power of consciousness—citi-saktih. In other words, Patanjali seems to be saying that consciousness is a property, or symptom, of the person, or soul, rather than saying that all attributes of “personness” disappear at the point of liberation.
This is where the word ‘kaivalya’ in this sutra comes into play.
Often interpreted to mean that there is, in reality, nothing but the power of consciousness, I’m inclined to think that kaivalya refers to aloneness in the sense of consciousness being completely uncoupled from the influence of the gunas: the qualities of material misidentification.
It’s not that there is nothing but consciousness, to say nothing of the popular idea that pure consciousness is, by definition, singular, and that you and I and everyone and everything is, in reality, one undifferentiated consciousness. Rather, it describes the state of one purusa out of innumerable purusas whose consciousness is isolated from material entanglements, who is no longer bound by the ropes of material conditioning.
If kaivalya meant that one undifferentiated consciousness apprehending nothing but its own awareness was the ultimate state of liberation, then there would be an internal contradiction in Patanjali’s Sutras between the sense of a purusa possessing the power of consciousness and consciousness itself. There would be a further contradiction between the idea of absolute oneness and his proposition that there is a categorically different other, isvara, upon whom Patanjali recommends that all purusas can meditate on in order to reach the goal described in the final sutra.
Which brings us to the other curious aspect of the final sutra: the idea of “the power of consciousness.”
Where there is power there must also be a powerful, a source of power. Anything that’s generating power must in turn have a source outside of itself by which the power generating capacity is obtained, such as water flowing into an electrical generator, or coal feeding a steam engine. We have no experience of power without a source; for something or someone to be the self-generating source of its own power it, or s/he, would have to be categorically different from anything in our experience, or at least beyond our comprehension.
Which brings us back to isvara whom Patanjali describes as purusa-visesa: categorically different from all other purusas. One such categorical difference is the capacity for self-generating power: isvara has no source of power other than him/her/itself. In the Upanishads and other Vedic texts with which Patanjali was most certainly familiar, there are numerous references to the Absolute Truth as having no external cause (Brahma Samhita) and as being a singular entity who is the source and sustenance of all other entities (Katha Upanishad).
One can also find passages in such literature that describe the Absolute Truth as being formless and other passages that describe the Absolute Truth as having a form.
In such traditional yoga wisdom texts a condition denied—in Sanskrit, often indicated by the prefix ni, as in nirodha: cessation, restraint, or control—refers to a material condition, whereas a condition to be upheld refers to a spiritual condition. For example, if we understand “formless” to mean “without material form” and “having form” as referring to “a spiritual form,” then we can see that these apparent contradictions are actually paradoxes meant to help us go beyond superficial understandings of the text.
So when Patanjali uses a negation, as he does in the beginning of the Yoga Sutras—yogas citta-vrtti-nirodah: “Yoga is the cessation of the changing states of the mind”—he’s referring to a material condition of consciousness that the yogi should bring to an end.
The positive, spiritual use of consciousness is found in the last sutra; svarupa-pratistha va citi-saktih: “in other words, (the gunas take a hike) when the power of consciousness is situated in its own essential nature.”
So now, one may ask, what is the essential nature of the consciousness of a liberated person? Patanjali has nested the answer not at the end of the Yoga Sutras, but at the center of them.
At first this might not seem to make sense: why put the answer to this all-important question in the middle of the text? If you think about it, we always put the most important thing in the middle: the crown jewel is in the middle of a setting, not at the end. In a procession, the king is in the center, surrounded by his entourage. So to, in Patanjali’s Yoga 196 Sutras, the essential nature of the consciousness of the liberated person is described in the 96th sutra: samadhi-siddhirisvara-pranidhanat:
The perfection of the ultimate meditative state arises from submission to the Supreme Person.
Hari-kirtana das has had a life-long interest in yoga and yogic mysticism, beginning his study of yoga philosophy and meditation as a teenager. In 1978 he accepted formal initiation into the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition of Krishna bhakti and spent the following four years living in various ashrams and spiritual communities. Hari-kirtana continued his yoga practice and, more recently, expanded his practice at the Jivamukti Yoga School in New York City in 2007, becoming a certified Jivamukti Yoga teacher in 2009. He currently holds an 800-hour teaching certification, teaches classes and workshops and leads kirtans at yoga studios in Washington DC and throughout the mid-Atlantic region, and writes about the relevance of traditional spiritual philosophy to contemporary life in the modern world. You can find a schedule of his upcoming events and his blog at hari-kirtana.com
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Editor: Thaddeus Haas