Extracts from S’ankara on the Yoga Sutras7 min read

In these extracts the translator proposes to give some idea of the original material which this sub-commentary provides for the study of the Yoga Sutras. Purely technical discussions are not included. It is intended that the meaning should be lucid and clear to the general reader.

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The Parallel with Medical Treatment

At the beginning of his sub-commentary, S’ankara compares the yogic methods to the four-fold classification of medical treatment. This is familiar in even early Buddhist texts, and it had been assumed that Buddhists adopted it from medical texts. But, as Wezler has shown, the four-fold classification does not appear in medical texts before about 200 AD. Vyasa in the second extract below reproduces the Buddhist simile, and S’ankara echoes it in the first two but the simile in the third one is perhaps original to this text.

We can note that S’ankara uses the term Samyagdarsana (right vision), a favourite word which appears repeatedly in the text, not so in Vyasa.
Extract 1: Sutra I.1 (p51):

No one will follow through the practices and restrictions of yoga unless the goal and the related means to it have been clearly set out, and the commentator first explains what they were in the mind of the sutra author, so that people may be led to practise.

First as to the goal. The clarifying illustration is given in the form of medicine. In classics of medicine, the exposition is under four heads: illness, cause of the illness, the healthy condition, the remedy. Medical science further explains these things in terms of prescriptions and restrictions.

So it is in yoga also. The sutra (II.15) Because of the sufferings caused by changes and anxieties and the samskara-s (dynamic latent impressions) of them, and from the clash of the guna-s, to the clear sighted everything is pain alone corresponds to the first head (diagnosis of illness).

The parallel four-fold division of this work on yoga is as follows:

what is to be escaped (= the illness) is samsara full of pain

its cause is the conjunction of Seer and seen, caused by ignorance (avidya)

the means of release an unwavering (aviplava) Knowledge that they are different; when that Knowledge-of-the-difference (viveka-khyati) appears, Ignorance ceases

when ignorance ceases, there is a complete end to conjunction of Seer and seen, and this is the release called kaivalya

Kaivalya (Transcendental Aloneness) here corresponds to the condition of health, and so it is release which is the goal.

Extract 2: Sutra II.15 (p219)

Vyasa commentary:

What produces this great mass of pain is Ignorance; what causes its annihilation is right vision.

As classics of medicine are in four parts: illness, cause of the illness, the healthy condition, and the remedy – so this work too has just four parts: samsara, cause of samsara, release, means of release.

Of these, samsara with its many pains is what is to be escaped; the conjunction of pradhana and Purusa is the cause of what is to be escaped; liberation (hana) is the absolute cessation of the conjunction; right vision is the means to liberation.

From the fact of pain in change and anxiety and samskara, it is demonstrated that the seed which produces this great as characterised by the guna-s and their qualities mass of pain, is Ignorance, and what causes its annihilation is right vision as its opponent. Since Knowledge (vidya) is based on things as they really are, it is only Knowledge that causes the annihilation of Ignorance which is based on things otherwise than as they are, just as the correct view of the thing as it is, the moon single, abolishes the view of a false thing, the moon seen double.

As accompanied by the fundamental cause of pain, taints and karma-s and their ripening, all is pain, and so it has been shown. The one who suffers from that pain is the man of clear sight (vivekin), and as such he is the proper object of a work on right vision (samyagdarsana-sastra) and not the other one, who accepts the very pain. He now seeks to illustrate the point by an example: As the classics of medicine are in four parts: illness, cause of the illness, the healthy condition, and the remedy.

As the classics of medicine are divided for teaching purposes into four: illness, cause of illness, the normal state of health, and the treatment for that purpose, and it is called four-fold as having these four parts of illness, etc., so in this work of yoga. There is samsara with its mass of pain; its cause is the conjunction of pradhana and Purusa arising from Ignorance; liberation from samsara so caused is the purpose of a work on right vision (such as this one); and there is right vision itself. With these four, this too is a system of four parts. Again it is four-fold because its subjects are divided in the four ways.

Instruction on dharma compared to medical prescriptions

Extract 3: Sutra I.25 (p114)

The wise have taught the performance of duties of caste, stage of life and so on, with their respective agents, experiencers, action, discipline and the related results. These are to be performed by those seeking the results, or by those who are fearful of committing sins. So it is like applying medical remedies. The teachings are like medical prescriptions in that it is for the sake of others that they are taught, in that they are relied on by informed people, and that in that they deal with things which the ordinary man would not come to know without being taught.

Concluding Note

There are a few one line allusions to medicine such as that excess of space can be a symptom (II.19. p234).

S’ankara gives the four-fold classification briefly in his introduction to the Mandukya Upanishad. We may also mention that though the medical similes nearly always imply a favourable outcome in S’ankara’s Gita commentary (II.40) he says that even a little practice of Yoga is never wasted, unlike agriculture where the efforts may produce no result, or medicine where the treatment may produce a result opposite to the intended one.

Degrees of Effort

Introductory Note

Previous to this sutra, degrees of effort have been spoken of: mild, moderate, ardent. Then in typical Indian fashion these three are sub-divided 3-fold: Mildly mild, Mildly moderate, Mildly ardent, Moderately mild, Moderately moderate and so on. The present sutra I.22 deals with the 3-fold levels of the ardent.

The Sankara comment evinces practical experience as a teacher. He knows the dangers of depression and over anxious fanatical practice. His reference to the samskara-s shows a trainer’s familiarity with the mind as a living thing which cannot be changed too abruptly by surface manipulation; the underlying dynamic samskara-impressions need time (which may be short) to adjust.

Extract: Sutra I.22:

Even among the ardent, there is a distinction of mild or moderate or
intense.

(Vyasa) They may be mild or moderate or intense in their ardent energy, and so there is a further distinction. For the mildly ardent it is near: for the moderately ardent it is nearer: for the intensely ardent yogin who is practising intense methods, samadhi and the fruit of samadhi is nearest of all.

(Sankara) Even among these ardent yogin-s there are distinctions corresponding to whether their progress is slow or moderate or ardent, and this is a distinction of the samskara-s created by their previous practice of the discipline. For the highest of them, the attainment of samadhi is nearest at hand.

The purpose of the sutra is to fortify the enthusiasm of yogin-s in their practice. It is as in the world, where the prize goes to the one who runs fastest in the race. But again, by making it clear that (all) yogin-s whether slow or not do attain their aimed-at goal, it should arouse an undepressed spirit in them; those, on the other hand, who have become over-anxious as a result of fatigue from intense efforts, might lose heart (unless told the goal is near).