Shankara on the Yoga Sutras Introduction for the general reader

Introduction for the general reader

The text translated here is an historical find: an unknown commentary on the Yoga sūtra-s of Patañjali by Śaṅkara, the most eminent philosopher of ancient India. Present indications are that it is likely to be authentic, which would date it about AD 700.

The many references to Yoga meditation in his accepted works have sometimes been regarded as concessions to accepted ideas of the time, and not really his own views. If he has chosen to write a commentary on Yoga meditation, it must have been a central part of his own standpoint, although he was opposed to some of the philosophical doctrines of the official Yoga school. One would expect a tendency to modify those unacceptable doctrines, if this text is really by Śaṅkara. This turns out to be the case.

For those familiar with yoga meditation, who want to go straight into the text, here is the method of presentation:

(1)The basic text, the Yoga sūtra-s of Patañjali (about AD 300), is displayed in large type thus:

sūtra I.1 Now the exposition of yoga

(2)Below each sūtra is a (mostly brief) commentary by Vyāsa (about AD 600). This is printed in italics, and set in from the left-hand margin. Sometimes this commentary is printed in separate paragraphs.

The word Now means that this is the beginning, and the topic now begun is understood to be an exposition of yoga

(3)Below each section of the Vyāsa commentary, and sometimes below the sūtra itself, is the newly discovered Śaṅkara sub-commentary (technically called a vivaraṇa), printed in roman type and not set in from the margin, thus:

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 sūtra author, so that people may be led to practice.


The structure of the Sanskrit text, which has to be followed in the translation, is that the words or phrases of the original sūtra, then of Vyāsa’s bhāṣya commentary, have first to be quoted and glossed, in order. In this translation, the sūtra or bhāṣya words being glossed in the main Śaṅkara vivaraṇa are given in italics.


sūtra II.48 From that, he becomes
immune to the opposites

(Vyāsa) When a posture has been mastered, he is not overwhelmed by opposites like heat and cold.

(Śaṅkara) From that, he becomes immune to the opposites. From that, from becoming firm in a posture. He gives an example of what he means: not overwhelmed by opposites like heat and cold.

The text is in four Parts: I Samādhi (sustained trance-concentration); II Means; III Glory (supernormal powers, limited and limiting); and IV Transcendental Aloneness


Yoga practice as a technique of meditation, under strict rules of morals, austerity and control of instinctive impulses, and generally with a religious background, is ancient in India. The aim is release from all limitations, including death. This is to be realized not by a physical or mental immortality, but by disentangling the true self- in this text called Puruṣa – from illusory identification with limitations. Then Puruṣa stands in its own nature, pure consciousness without the movement in consciousness called thought: this is release. In the philosophy of the Yoga school as it developed, it came to be called kaivalya or Transcendental Aloneness.

Such an ideal of release from the mind-cage is not appealing to the generality of mankind, who associate freedom with something like jubilation and triumphant states of mind. But the deepest tradition of what is now India always had a keen sense of the constriction of the body-mind complex. The yoga aspirant regards the man of the world, and also those aiming at supernormal enjoyments in some heaven, as prisoners simply wanting more prestige and space within the prison, or perhaps a better prison, but who have not realized that they are imprisoned. They are like the small children in a prison camp, who do not feel confined. Provided the food and affection hold up, and they are not frightened, their wishes do not go beyond immediate circumstances. They would not want to leave the place: it is home. But when they grow up, they feel the need to get out.

Still, the notion of a sort of mindless emptiness, which is the nearest most people can get to imagining consciousness absolute, is not attractive. Many yogic aspirants are thinking at the beginning of some of the supernormal powers and knowledge described in repetitive detail in the third part of these Yoga sūtra-s (with the warning that they are sources of inevitable pain). The powers are presented in the text not to invite people to practise them, but because some of them may occur spontaneously in anyone practising meditation on the true Self. Unless a practitioner has had some warning that one of these may come to him, and that they are all limited and limiting, and further that the disastrous excitement they cause may throw him back into the whirl of futile desires for a long time, he can be held up for years, or even a lifetime.

It is noteworthy that in this text, in his commentary on the five sūtra-s on God (I.23–28), Śaṅkara swings the whole trend of the practice towards oneness with God. He quotes the Gītā verse XI.55:

He who does works for Me, seeing Me as the supreme, devoted to Me, Free from attachment, without hatred for any, he comes to Me, O Pāṇḍava

In the Gītā this is identification with the creator-Lord, also described at great length in the commentary to the five Yoga sūtras here. It is quite different from the Transcendental Aloneness of the official Yoga school (to which, however, elsewhere he gives formal allegiance as a commentator on a Yoga text).

Yoga texts

A tradition developed in India that any system of religious or mystical practice must have as a background some satisfactory theory of the true nature of the universe and of the soul, and of its own modus operandi. In the case of yoga, this demand was met by the rise of a Yoga school; it is usually regarded (as in the present text, for instance) as sharing most of its philosophical ideas with the Sāṅkhya school, except that Yoga proposed the existence of a god where Sāṅkhya put the question aside as not susceptible of proof. Both Sāṅkhya and the Yoga system are dualistic: Puruṣa or transcendental self, pradhāna or unmanifest nature which periodically manifests as mind and matter, are equally real and eternal.

The earliest substantial text now surviving on the Yoga school – there are fragments of others – is the Yoga sūtra-s of Patañjali, tentatively dated about AD 300. A book of sūtra-s was little more than a collection of headings, similar to those circulated by any teacher to pupils, to be filled out by oral instructions, without which many of them can hardly be understood. The oral traditions later came to be recorded in brief written commentaries; these in turn became fuller – sub-commentaries on the commentaries – and finally systematic presentations of the whole system, but still under the sūtra headings. This format occasionally necessitated long digressions from the ostensible subject-heading.

An important part of the presentation was refutation of objections, and there are long sections of debate against an opponent, who as fast as one position is refuted shifts his standpoint to another. Some of the objections are based on the views of philosophical schools which were elaborately worked out and could be strongly supported; where the opponent is simply raising one point, it may look rather feeble in isolation from the rest of the system.

The first commentary on Patañjali is that by Vyāsa. He is thought to have lived some time between AD 540 and 650. The next established commentary, on both the sūtra-s and on Vyāsa, is a long work by the famous Vācaspati, dated about AD 850. He was by conviction a follower of the Vedānta school, which teaches an omniscient god who projects, supports and withdraws the universe by his divine power called māyā, and who is also the real self of everything in it. Māyā has an element of illusion, and the universe, though it appears, is not as real as god. Ultimately there is no duality: only god exists.

In his commentary, however, Vācaspati adopted what had developed as the doctrine of the classical Yoga school: the universe is real, arising from unmanifest subtle matter (pradhāna) which has no intelligence of its own, and is not created by any intelligent god. There is a god, but he is mainly teacher and helper, and only one self (Puruṣa) out of many.

There were thus three works which laid the foundations of the Yoga philosophical school: Patañjali’s Yoga sūtra-s about AD 300; Vyāsa’s commentary, about AD 600; and the sub-commentary by Vācaspati, about AD 850. The Yoga sūtra-s have been translated many times, an early version being by Ballantyne in 1880; Vyāsa also has been translated many times. A masterly translation of Vācaspati was published by Professor J. H. Woods of Harvard in 1914.

The Śaṅkara sub-commentary (Vivaraṇa)

There has now appeared, unexpectedly, a sub-commentary which claims to be by Śaṅkara, the great commentator on the Upaniṣads and the Bhagavad Gītā, and the de facto founder of the non-dual Vedānta school. He lived about AD 700, and if this is genuinely by him it will precede Vācaspati’s work by some 150 years, and thus be of great importance. It will be an unknown work, on the theory and practice of yoga, by India’s greatest religious and philosophical genius.

The original Sanskrit text was published in 1952 as No. 94 in the Madras Government Oriental Series. It was based on a single surviving manuscript, which had to be re-arranged and considerably edited. This was done with great learning and patience by two pandits: P. S. Rama Sastri and S. R. Krishnamurti Sastri. Their judgement was, that this is a genuine lost work of Śaṅkara. It is certain that it existed in the fourteenth century, for it is quoted in a work of that date. Many of those who have worked on it are inclined to think it may well go back to Śaṅkara, about AD 700, and after working on it for a good time, I think it very probable. So far I have found nothing in it which would rule out the possibility, and quite a lot to support it. For the present purpose I shall assume it is by him.

The Yoga sūtra-s are in four Parts: I – Samādhi (trance in which the mental processes are inhibited partially or wholly); II – Means; III – Glory; IV – Kaivalya (Transcendental Aloneness). It is in the first Part, Samādhi, that he puts forward most of the original views, sometimes at great length, where he brings the thought into line with the Vedānta philosophy of which he was the leading representative. While ostensibly commenting on Vyāsa, he gives interpretations which are opposed to those of the Yoga school, at least as it developed. The most important passages come in the little group of sūtra-s on God, which total only five out of the fifty-one sūtra-s in this first Part. His remarks on these five sūtra-s take up nearly one-quarter of his commentary on the whole Part. Meditation on God, by the use of the syllable ‘OM’ in particular, has become the main practice of the yoga, whereas in Patañjali and in Vyāsa it is merely an alternative.

A Western reader may be surprised to find so much philosophical discussion in a text which claims to be a practical manual. But the view in India was that, as Śaṅkara explains at the beginning, people will not continue practice which demands their whole life unless they are intellectually satisfied about the goal and the means to it. This view is based on wide experience of human nature.

As a Western example, Dr Esdaile in Calcutta (1840) carried out hundreds of operations, including amputations, under hypnosis without pain to the patients, and modern surgeons who read the reports find them impressive; but he could give no account of how it worked, and his medical colleagues gave him no support. Lord Dalhousie, the Governor of Bengal, however, who knew prejudice when he saw it, backed Esdaile and put him in charge of a hospital in Calcutta. But when Dr Esdaile returned to Britain, he was far less successful with the patients in his native Aberdeen. They must have longed to be freed from pain, but because of their intellectual doubts could not give the full co-operation required. The Indian patients, on the other hand, could do so because there was justification in their own culture for the idea that mind could be separated from the operation of the senses. Soon after (1846), ether and chloroform were discovered, and the whole subject was dropped with relief. There is still no satisfactory account of hypnosis in Western intellectual terms, and this is undoubtedly a barrier to its further development; there is a justifiable unease about employing something not properly understood.

Śaṅkara stresses that intellectual conviction is supremely important in the early stages of yoga especially. Before there has been any direct experience, however small, it is all second-hand, as it were. After the first direct experience (as he explains in the commentary on sūtra I.35), there is an invigoration of the whole personality, and doubts no longer trouble the practitioner.

In the present text, for a long time Śaṅkara makes his explanations on the basis of inference and analogy; not till sūtra I.25 does he quote sacred authority for his statements about spiritual truths. Once he has begun to do so, however, he cites the Upaniṣads far more than Vyāsa or Vācaspati. This is a possible indication of the genuineness of the work, as Śaṅkara in his other works stresses the absolute necessity of the Upaniṣadic teaching for realization of truth.

A special feature of the sub-commentary is that it presents the regularities of the universe as consciously planned and directed. The arguments are developed at great length, and the author evidently thought them extremely important for yoga practice. The events of the world are indeed predictable, but in the sense that the notes are predictable in a performance by an expert musician, and not in a merely mechanical sense. God controls everything from within.

There are references to something like the ‘anthropic principle’ proposed recently, which shows that the evolution of any form of life in the universe depends rather delicately on apparent ‘coincidences’ among the physical constants.

It is interesting that Śaṅkara had an idea of gravity as a pull. Here it is proposed (1.25) that movements of heavenly bodies are controlled by something like magnetism, and elsewhere in his writings (Praśna Upaniṣad III.8; Taittirīya Upaniṣad II.2.1) he says that things are pulled down to earth. But there too it is stressed that this is a conscious action by the divinity of the earth, who controls it exactly. ‘The deity of the earth by his grace keeps under control, by pulling down, the apāna (down-going) vital current of man; otherwise the body would fall because of its weight or would fly up into the sky if left free.’

There are certain principles which Śaṅkara holds as almost self-evident. One is, that anything that can be imagined or spoken of must be a knowable, and this means that it must be actually known either in the past or present or future. It would be meaningless to try to speak of something which is never known at any time.

The doctrine is extended, so that everything, in the past and future as well as the present, already is. Differences of time are merely of phase; essentially everything exists all the time. A similar view has been proposed by some modern cosmologists.

Śaṅkara assumes knowledge to be something like space: essentially unlimited. Their contents can be limited, and they seem to be limited by barriers. But in fact it is not so. God knows everything all the time.

Main points of the text

Part I. Samādhi

Following a rather disconcerting Indian tradition, the presentation begins with the expert. This Part is for one who already knows how to practise samādhi, sustained concentration in what could be called trance. To do this, he must be one who has greatly reduced the turmoil of illusory desires and fears. The orthodox account runs something like this: Puruṣa, pure consciousness-awareness, gives attention to prakṛti, describable as infinite unmanifest potentiality. As a result of his attention, it goes into world manifestation, as three conflicting elements – sattva (light), rajas (passion-struggle leading inevitably to pain), and tamas (darkness and inertia). Puruṣa is apparently caught up in prakṛti when he identifies himself with an element in it, in the erroneous belief that there is purity, happiness, and permanence to be had in experience of prakṛti. This illusion is called technically Ignorance (a-vidyā).

There is an omniscient god in the cosmos, but he is simply a special kind of Puruṣa, who is never deluded. He is not a creator or governor of the course of things, but confines himself to teaching, and removal of obstacles to release.

In the classical Yoga school, the illusion consists of being fascinated by prakṛti’s displays, which are put on in accordance with the merits and demerits of the souls who experience them. Prakṛti is real enough, but Puruṣa enters it, so to speak, as a soul, under an illusion as to its quality. There is one illusion, and it is removed by reducing the mental processes, first to one, by meditation and detachment, and finally giving them up altogether. A reader might suppose that this would simply lead to sleep. But sleep too is a mental process, and it has to be inhibited like all the others. Then Puruṣa remains in His own transcendental nature. There are many Puruṣa-s.

The swing towards Vedānta

A feature of this text is that there is a consistent pull towards the Vedānta. For instance, the author will say that as all the Puruṣa-s are consciousness pure and alone, it is hard to see how they could be distinguished. If indistinguishable, they will be the same. This is against the official view of the Yoga school in the Yoga-sūtra-s.

Again, God is presented in this text, at great length, as the creator of the universe by his divine mind. In Vedānta too, God is the all-creating and ruling overlord of the universe, which he projects as a sort of magic show, also entering into it as the Inner Ruler of each thing in it. Release can be effected by worshipping him and repetition of his expressing word OM, leading to experience of the real Self as one with God who transcends the universe and all descriptions.

This text continually hints that the universe is unreal, not real as the orthodox view of Yoga would have it. Still, when his duty as a commentator requires it, Śaṅkara presents the formal Yoga view.

In the Vedānta view, there are two illusions, not just one. Puruṣa, the real Self, is fascinated by prakṛti’s displays, under the illusion that happiness and other emotions are there where there is only suffering, and that a real self is there where there is only egoity: but more than that, the whole world-display is also an illusion, put on by the Lord who is within everything in it as the antaryāmin (inner ruler). So that at the very core of prakṛti there is the bliss of Brahman (God); only if the magic show is taken as absolutely real is there suffering. This final Upaniṣadic view is not expressed openly in the Vivaraṇa, but there are various indications of it, such as the references to the world-process as the complex plot of a drama. This is not the same as the Sāṅkhya-Yoga illustration of prakṛti as a dancing-girl.

In Śaṅkara’s Vedānta, the Yoga system is accepted as an authority on meditation practice and some other things like ethics and renunciation. But Vedānta aims to go further, for instance to become aware of the intelligence behind the workings of prakṛti, which is discovered to be divine as set out here in the 17–page long commentary to sūtra I.25.

The total inhibition of mental processes is also described in the Upaniṣads and in the Gītā (for example, VI.25: ‘let him not think of anything’ – this is the highest yoga, comments Śaṅkara). Often the technical terms used are those of Patañjali’s sūtra-s. But the object of meditation must be one recommended in the scriptures on Self-realization, just as here the Vivaraṇa restricts sūtra I.39, ‘Let him meditate on what appeals to him’, to prescribed objects and not to pleasures.

The techniques of samādhi are described. First is one-pointedness, concentration on some one of the prescribed objects – such as the sun, for instance. As the meditation is deeper and more sustained, associations are dropped off: name, concept, time, space, and finally all memories. Mind becomes so clear, pure, and still that the essence of the object of meditation blazes out as it is. When this is practised repeatedly on the same object, the knowledge becomes what is technically called Truth-bearing. In some cases it would correspond to what is called inspiration. The basis of the process is that mind is inherently omniscient, and the yogic practice simply removes its self-imposed limitations, and focuses the omniscience.

In such yogic practitioners, the mental processes are thinned and then reduced to one. The same process is applied to the roots of the mind, the seed-bed of dynamic seeds called saṃskāra, impressions left by actions and thoughts of a beginningless series of previous lives. When surface mental processes are in abeyance, the state consists of saṃskāra-s alone, and in an ordinary unpurified mind it manifests as dream or sleep. But the yogin’s seed-bed of saṃskāra-s, purified by impressions of yogic practice which overcome the other latent impressions (because yoga based on truth will always in the end overcome illusion), supports samādhi for longer and longer periods.

Finally, as detachment from the illusions of worldly ideas becomes complete, all mental processes are inhibited without exception. By extended practice of this, there is no more mental confusion which has obscured the distinction between Puruṣa and prakṛti, and Puruṣa stands out alone as pure awareness. This is a foretaste of release, and soon becomes permanent.

In the first Part, which is about one-third of the whole, Śaṅkara is establishing certain key positions, and refuting key objections, some of them highly technical. The general reader might at his first reading begin from near the end of sūtra I.1, where the Vyāsa commentary says: But the samādhi in the one-pointed mind makes clear the object as it is … Break at page 70, after reading sūtra 1.6 and sūtra 1.7, and come in again at sūtra 1.8: Illusion is false knowledge based on an untrue form.

Part II. Means

This is yoga presented for the man of the world, who must first clear, and then steady, his mind against the fury of illusory passions, and free his life from entanglements.

In sūtra 1, the means are first given collectively as the Yoga of Action (kriyā yoga). It consists of three elements: (1) Tapas: practising keeping the mind serene under the pressure of heat and cold, and other such opposites; (2) Self-study, which is study of the Upaniṣads, and also repetition of the sacred syllable OM; (3) Devotion to God.

These three means can by themselves remove the taints and bring about samādhi. It is noteworthy that when Śaṅkara defines the Yoga of Action (karma yoga) in his commentary to Gītā II.39, it is in the same three terms, and even similar wording.

In fact this is an expansion of the method given in the first Part, in sūtra 23, ‘Or by devotion to the Lord’. It was there described as meditation on the classical indications of God such as the creation and maintenance of the world as explained in the Upaniṣad-s, and also repetition of OM as the expression of God. In this second Part of the yoga sūtra-s, devotion is analysed further. The study and meditation on the Upaniṣad-s, and repetition of OM, are a separate heading, namely Self-study. Devotion to God, which had included them, is now confined to consigning actions to the Lord, or else surrendering the fruits of actions to the Lord. (These are two stages explained in Śaṅkara’s commentary to Gītā XII.10 and 11.)

The triple Yoga of Action will appear again at the end of the second Part, as the last three elements of the observances (sūtra-s II.32 and II.43–II.45). In that place, however, it is said again (sūtra 45) that from devotion alone comes perfection in samādhi. Nevertheless other methods, including the restraints such as harmlessness (ahiṃsā) are given, along with means such as posture. They are all, however, meaningful only as methods of thinning out the taints and helping to steady the mind. Any encouragements to practise such things as posture by promising long-lasting youth are against the spirit of the Yoga sūtra.

Nearly all the elements here are discussed by Śaṅkara in his Bhagavad Gītā commentary, and the arrangement of the restraints and observances of sūtra-s II.30 and II.32 is close to that in a group of verses in the Gītā, which is much older than Patañjali’s sūtra-s:

Yoga sūtra II.30 Gītā XVII. 14, 15
harmlessness (ahiṃsā) Tapas of body: harmlessness
not stealing straightforwardness
brahmacarya (celibacy) brahmacarya
not holding property not holding property (VI. 10).
truth Tapas of speech: truth
sūtra II.32
purity Tapas of body: purity
contentment contentment (II.55)
tapas tapas
self-study Tapas of speech: self-study
devotion to God devotion to God (passim)

The Gītā is a textbook of yoga from the practical standpoint, and many of its verses are poetic paraphrases of Upaniṣadic declarations. It does not justify its statements with systematic reasoning, as does the Yoga sūtra. The two texts are complementary to some extent. There is nothing in the Gītā like the elaborate account of the operations of the guṇa-s which is given in the Vivaraṇa here, but the Gītā gives vivid examples of the guṇa-s operating in thought and action of particular kinds. Often these examples show deep insight; for instance, that there is a firmness with which some people cling to fear and depression and grief (XVIII.35).

Śaṅkara here explains the Self-study of sūtra II.1 as study of sacred texts on release, beginning with the Upaniṣad-s. Now the Gītā, though generally taken as a single word ‘song’, has for its fuller title ‘the Upaniṣad sung (gītā) by the Lord’, and Śaṅkara in his commentary on it says that it contains the essence of the Upaniṣad-s. Here in the Vivaraṇa the Gītā is quoted a number of times, and it is called more than once āgama or sacred scripture. Śaṅkara’s Gītā commentary is a help in understanding the Yoga sūtra sub-commentary translated here. In the latter, for example, Śaṅkara modifies the analysis of experience into only lesser or greater pain by a sudden reference to Gītā XVIII.37, which speaks of happiness from inner purity produced by knowledge, non-attachment, meditation and samādhi (sūtra II.15). Again, on sūtra II.13 he refers to the distinction between Yoga and Sāṅkhya, a distinction discussed by him at great length in his Gītā commentary but not elsewhere.

The detailed exposition of the Taints elaborates the background, without which (as was said at the very beginning of the Vivaraṇa) people cannot be expected to sustain their practice. The fine distinctions such as dormant, checked, and scorched are not felt strange today. The comments on sūtra II.5 contain the first grammatical excursus, purely technical and to be passed over.

Then comes Sūtra II.13’s long discussion of karma, on which there is a final apt comment: ‘this course of karma is complicated and hard to know.’ It is noteworthy that on sūtra II.13 the Vivaraṇa overrules Vyāsa by citing Manu, for whom Śaṅkara has always great reverence.

The following analysis of experience into greater or lesser pain is not spiritual hypochondria, but to make the yogin-s vividly aware of the constrictions of present experience. If they sink into an apathy of acceptance the efforts to escape will flag.

The description of the guṇa-s is further background; the practical application is found in Gītā XVII and XVIII.

Vital sections for practice are those on Release and the relation of Seer and Seen (II.20–29). Unless this becomes clear and firm in the yogin, he will never be able to make the final transfer of awareness from a mental idea to pure consciousness. The abandonment of mental ideas will feel like loss of everything, annihilation in fact.

It may be noted that the concept of Puruṣa as for-its-own-sake and all else as for-the-sake-of-another, illustrated with the example of a mirror, is prominent in A Thousand Teachings, one of Śaṅkara’s other major works. It will come again under III.35.

The Part ends with introducing the eight steps of Yoga. Śaṅkara comments that their sole purpose is removal of the Taints, and attainment of samādhi. It is not expected that aspirants will become perfect in them before trying for samādhi. There is a certain lack of enthusiasm for the Restraints and Observances in the famous rush of modern life (when average TV viewing in many countries is over three hours daily), but in fact they are mostly negative: the last three of the Observances have been given already under the Yoga of Action at the beginning of the Part, as sufficient to take away Taints and bring samādhi. These are very positive.

The present sub-commentary on the Yoga sūtra is not a complete manual of practice. Some postures are merely named, leaving actual instruction to a teacher. More details on some points are to be found in the Gītā commentary, though there too a good deal is taken for granted. Take the process of prāṇāyāma. In this text and in the Gītā, exhaling to the limit and then checking the breath, and inhaling to the limit and then checking the breath, are separate practices, distinguished from suddenly holding the breath wherever it happens to be in mid-breath. In many later texts they were combined, and the breath was held only with the lungs full. Breathing with one nostril blocked is also a sign of later date.

Some of the practices of prāṇāyāma outlined in this text need expert direction. Śaṅkara knew the techniques, as shown by some original comments: for instance, on the inner sensations, and the ‘up-stroke’, a marked effect familiar to teachers of meditation. (It is referred to in Gītā VIII.9–13.) Modern yogin-s, such as Hari Prasad Shastri and Rama Tirtha, recommend simple exhalation (sūtra I.34) in a prolonged OM. This leads spontaneously to the ‘up-stroke’, as described by Swami Rama Tirtha in his essay called ‘Praṇayama and Will-power’. It must always be remembered that prāṇāyāma is part of a whole discipline which includes worship of God and strict self-control.

At the end of this Part, the sūtra-s give a number of ‘perfections’ which arise automatically when a given discipline has been perfected. They are not the same as the special powers and knowledge which are aims of particular meditations in the third Part. He shows for some, and by implication for others, that a desire for them would prevent the perfection of the discipline.

Sūtra II.37 runs, ‘With establishment in non-stealing, all precious things come to him.’ This is not simply a rigid honesty, because, as he explains, the perfection consists of desirelessness. One who practised non-stealing, therefore, with the secret aim of attracting wealth by this perfection, would never in fact perfect it till he had abandoned the aim completely.

There is no question of Śaṅkara’s own conviction of the reality of these effects. In his Brahma-sūtra commentary he quotes Yoga-sūtra II.44, From self-study, communion with the deity of his devotion’, as proof that the sage Vyāsa could meet the gods face to face, and he adds, ‘That yoga does, as tradition declares, lead to the acquirement of such powers … is a fact which cannot be set aside by mere vehement denial.’

In the first Part, there were some notable shifts of the philosophical positions towards Vedānta, and there are a few more in this Part. The sub-commentary in various places in the second Part elaborates on Vyāsa’s simile of yoga as like medical treatment. But on sūtra II.23 he takes it further, so that the treatment is not for any actual illness, but for a false auto-suggestion of having been poisoned, which causes symptoms of illness. Śaṅkara uses this simile of medical treatment in a number of places in his works, but this brings in a new and purely advaitic extension of it.

Part III. Glory

This begins with an analysis of the so-called inner limbs of Yoga, and the elements of samādhi. The description of the last is in terms of the highest stage of samādhi, when all memories have been transcended with other associations, and the object alone shines forth (sūtra I.43, 44).

There follow some long philosophical discussions on qualities and on time-phase, and then some of the supernormal knowledge and power resulting from samādhi practice taken to the limit. Śaṅkara gives some original comments which imply that he knew these practices. But though he describes a few in detail, most he dismisses briefly, and the long descriptions of heavenly realms in sūtra III.36 he ignores completely, whereas Vācaspati revels in the details.

(Incidentally it is not clear why saṃyama on the sun and moon should lead to knowledge of heavenly worlds and disposition of the stars respectively. The Chinese Taoist visions resulting from sun-meditation describe the interior of the sun – with equally surprising geography and inhabitants – and the stations of its orbit. Similarly those on the moon are more what one would expect.)

But Śaṅkara clearly takes literally the admonition of sūtra III.37 that these powers are perfections to the unpurified mind, but obstacles to samādhi, because they trigger off latent taints at the root of the mind.

Sūtra III.36 says that certain forms of supernormal knowledge arise from samādhi on Puruṣa, and Vyāsa comments: ‘they always arise.’ But Śaṅkara deliberately omits this comment of Vyāsa, and adds (under the next sūtra) that they do not arise in one who is detached. This direct contradiction of the sūtra, and of Vyāsa’s comment, shows the great independence of mind of the Vivaraṇa author, and are another instance of the swing towards a Vedāntic view.

It may be noted that in the case of powers arising from samādhi made to acquire them, the exercise of them carries in it a sort of contradiction. To effect the samādhi, memory must have been purified of all associations (sūtra I.43, 44). But after a success, the excitement will rouse all the latent desires, and it will become increasingly difficult, and finally impossible, to free the memory from them. So the power will be lost, except in one who exercises it without any interest in it of pride or advantage. Śaṅkara in his Brahma-sūtra commentary says that all these powers are ultimately dependent on the Lord.

The very long debate on words and meanings under sūtra III.17 is entirely technical; it is of perhaps great historical importance, but of no significance for the general reader.

Sūtra III.35 is a central sūtra for those who seek release, as the Vivaraṇa remarks. It is closely connected with some important sections of Śaṅkara’s A Thousand Teachings, on the switch from mental awareness of what can be only a ‘reflection’ of Puruṣa, to Puruṣa’s ultra-cognitive awareness.

Sūtra III.52 has an interesting (and surprising) discussion on time. Time is not absolute, but operational. This will be elaborated in the next Part, sūtra IV.12 and 13.

Part IV. Transcendental Aloneness (kaivalya)

There is an account of the mechanism of powers. They are not created by samādhi, for instance, but are implementations of the infinite powers of prakṛti along a channel opened by samādhi. Prakṛti is a seething mass of potentialities, somewhat like the vacuum as envisaged by physicists, in which virtual particles are continuously appearing and annihilating one another.

The question of projection of several bodies by samādhi-power is touched on (sūtra IV.4, 5); the Brahma-sūtra bhāṣya on the same point (IV.4.15) refers to yoga scriptures as authority. The conclusion is the same, that there are several minds, but the Vivaraṇa does not refer to the Brahma-sūtra analogy of a lamp lighting other lamps.

There are further discussions on karma and time, and a long polemic against Buddhist doctrines (sūtra-s IV.13–14). This is elaborated vigorously by the Vivaraṇa, implying that Buddhism was still an opponent to be reckoned with at the time of writing.

The final sūtra-s show perfection of Knowledge-of-the-difference, and then turning away from all mental operations including even that Knowledge, so that Puruṣa stands in its own nature, pure awareness. The final turning away is the virāma-pratyaya or idea-of-stopping of sūtra I.18. It is illustrated in Śaṅkara’s A Thousand Teachings I.19, which says at the beginning to the mind: ‘O mind, make more efforts at tranquillization’ and goes on to discard, on the basis of knowledge, the futile mental activity. It leads to nirvāṇa – the blowing out of a lamp, or the dying down of a flame as fuel is exhausted. This last simile is used in the Vivaraṇa to I.18: ‘the idea of stopping is still an idea while coming to a stop and before it has ceased to be an idea at all … as a fire, little by little going out, is still truly a flame until it finally becomes ashes.’ Release is now final because the saṃskāra-s and all other aspects of the guṇa-s have fallen off. Puruṣa makes no more illusory identifications.


The cosmological doctrines of Sānkhya-Yoga are occasionally referred to in passing, and a few Sanskrit words have to be learnt. Some of them, like karma and nirvāṇa, are already familiar, and with the Western interest in yoga, it is likely that there will be a readiness to accept Sanskrit, just as the Italian terms were accepted in music.

The brief outline of the world according to Sānkhya-Yoga (but not followed always by Śaṅkara, as has been mentioned) would be something like the following:

There are two eternal principles: unconscious unmanifest matter (pradhāna or prakṛti), and Puruṣa, pure consciousness. Pradhāna is made up of three elements, sattva (light), rajas (passion-struggle) and tamas (dark inertia). They are explained in the commentary on sūtra II.15.

When Puruṣa gives attention to pradhāna, the latter goes into manifestation, as a play begins when the audience is ready. The manifestation first takes the form of a principle called the Great (mahat). Like everything else, it is made up of the three elements or gunā-s: sattva, rajas, and tamas. It is sometimes called Being Only. As it plays little part in the discussions, it is enough to know that it is the first manifestation. From it arises Ahaṅkāra, which could be loosely called the cosmic I. Neither of these two can be meditated upon in their fullness, as they are too great.

On the physical side, the next manifestation is what are called tanmātra-s; they are roughly speaking potentialities of sensations like smell and so on. They are not directly accessible to the senses, but can be experienced in the special concentration described in sūtra I.35. Less subtle than these, but still not within the grasp of the senses, are the atoms of various kinds. The aggregates of the atoms are the physical wholes of the world, perceived by the senses.

On the psychic side, the cosmic I produces the minds of all beings. They essentially consist of sattva, but become clouded and stained by the two other guṇa-s, namely rajas and tamas. The minds produce (or attract to themselves) senses, both of reception and of action.

Mental operations produce dynamic latent impressions called saṃskāra-s. These are the base of memory, and of impulse generally. In samādhi, mental operations are inhibited, partially or wholly. The inhibition lasts only for a time, because the urge of saṃskāra-s disturbs; however, inhibition produces a saṃskāra of its own, which is hostile to and overcomes the other saṃskāra-s which lie at the base of the mind. A great part of the yogic training consists in weakening unfavourable saṃskāra-s and reinforcing favourable ones.

Various words for mind are used rather indiscriminately in this text: antaḥ-karaṇa (inner organ), citta, manas, buddhi (sometimes distinguished as a higher mind), sattva. In the last case, the name of the guṇa of luminosity (sattva) is used for mind.

To follow the discussions on re-birth centred round II.13, it is useful to know that Nandīśvara was a poorly-off human, who through intense devotion was suddenly transformed into a divine being; Nahuṣa, a divine being, entertained a thought of lust and was on the spot changed into a snake.

The translation

The general reader of a text like this must be prepared for certain conventions. Sanskrit compounds of a basic text are often ambiguous, and one great responsibility of the commentator is to explain how they are to be understood. An example from English would be, ‘a widely-read author’. The commentator has to say whether it means that the author has himself read widely, or that his words are read by many people. In translation, of course, the compound has already been resolved when it first occurs in the basic text (here Vyāsa), and the subsequent comment is only a repetition. Nevertheless, in a translation it has to be given, and occasionally an extra gloss is thrown in which does add something. But the reader should be warned of this apparently redundant wordiness.

In the free commentary, however, once the original words have been explained (and it was the convention that every one of them must be commented on), Śaṅkara is terse. He expects his readers to have an excellent memory, and to be able to follow the argument without repetitions. As the point sometimes requires a knowledge of an opponent’s philosophical position, the general reader must accept that some passages will be obscure to him. I have not adopted the custom of putting in a series of parentheses to explain what I think he means.

This is a difficult text, and the conventional Sanskrit format makes translation occasionally awkward. The word in the basic text has to be followed immediately by its gloss, which means that sometimes the sentence has to be turned very artificially. Nevertheless, I hope that it will be found accessible to non-specialists, even at occasional cost to precision. In fact, the proper drive for precision can sometimes over-shoot into unreadability and even incomprehensibility.

I have hyphenated English plurals of Sanskrit words, to make them easy to distinguish from Sanskrit words in ‘-s’ such as rajas or tamas. I have also split up compounds where feasible, to make the elements easier to recognize, and I have usually separated off the negative prefix ‘a-’.

The Sanskrit words in parenthesis are mostly terms characteristic of Saṇkara, and important for the question of authenticity. They have no significance for the general reader who is primarily interested in Śaṅkara’s yoga practice, on which this text throws a flood of light.

To facilitate reference, I have put headings to the sections of the text: they are only approximate, as the subject can change abruptly. No such headings are to be found in the text itself.


To examine and judge the likely authenticity of this text will require not only expert philological and historical knowledge. The ideas of the text also have to be compared with those of Śaṅkara’s well-attested works. It is not enough to know the wording of the texts, however exactly. And ideas may be known without being understood.

A great scholar of Śaṅkara’s works once remarked that Śaṅkara’s mistake was to suppose that consciousness could only be one: Śaṅkara simply did not see that there could be two similar consciousnesses. The point was made as though it were obvious, and so it is, but only from a naïve standpoint. Erwin Schrödinger, Nobel Prize physicist and a philosopher of science, in his famous What Is Life? discussed this very point, and explicitly cited the Advaita view, which he confirmed. Schrödinger’s support does not prove that Śaṅkara was right, only that his ideas are not to be dismissed out of hand.

The long arguments for an intelligent world-creator and ruler here in sūtra-s I.24 and 25 would, not very long ago, have been similarly dismissed as nursery teleology. Many of them are now acceptable, as massively evidenced for instance in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle by Barrow and Tipler (Oxford University Press, 1986).

The validity of yogic states, dismissed by Edgerton as ‘self-hypnosis’, is to be proved or disproved by experiment, not by pre-conceptions. In a sense, Japanese scholars have an advantage because they are familiar with a still-living stream of meditation practice, which is well attested historically to have freed many from the fear of death, and to have been a source of inspiration in many fields of culture. The life of the late Hari Prasad Shastri in London was equally convincing to his pupils.

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