Vasanas and sanskaras govern human lives
In the great classic known as the Yoga Sutra-s, Patanjali’s sutra II.5 says: Ignorance is the conviction of permanence, purity, happiness, and self, in what are really impermanent, impure, painful and not-self. So the fixed impulses – called by him vasana-s and sanskara-s, which normally govern human lives, are based on illusion, and he puts them in four main classes of illusion given in the sutra:
(1) the illusory conviction of permanence in what is impermanent
We think things are permanent; we realize intellectually, but cannot realize practically, that they are always passing. When the Spanish dictator General Franco, at a very advanced age, lay dying in his palace overlooking a main central square in Madrid, detachments of his supporters marched through the square to make their farewells. ‘Good‑bye Franco, good‑bye!’ they chanted. The dying Franco beckoned his doctor and asked feebly: ‘Where are all these people going?’ He could not realize that it was he himself who was passing. We think: how ridiculous! But many of our actions and our beliefs are based on this very point. We think something is permanent although in another way we know that it can’t be.
(2) We think that something is pure when it is impure. The commentators on Patanjali from the East. We should also find them in Western history, when Dr. Shastri recommended his pupils to study as an aid to Yoga study. When the Romans made the aqueducts to bring water to the cities, they lined them with lead, to keep the water clean as they thought. In fact the lead was gradually poisoning them. They could not know, and it is an example of ignorance which thinks the impure is pure.
(3) Happiness where there is no real happiness; often the illusion consists in looking at one part and trying to disregard the rest.
Two students lived together, and both studied fairly hard. One was a keen athlete who also trained hard (fanatical, fanatical – remarked the other); the other lived what he called a balanced life, with occasional all-night parties. On one occasion, the sporting one saw preparations being made, and asked: ‘Oh, party again tonight?’ ‘Yes, we are going to have a lively one. Why don’t you join in?’ ‘You know I’ve got my training.’ ‘Oh, break the training just this once and come and enjoy yourself at the party. You don’t know how to enjoy yourself.’ The sportsman said: ‘By and large, I don’t think you do enjoy yourselves. Anyway, I’ll do an all-night run and see you in the morning.’ So at midnight he left in his running outfit, and his fellow-student gave him a big thump on the back, while the others cheered as he left: ‘Best wishes from the party – think of us as you run in the cold!’
When he came back about seven o’clock in the morning, the whole place was littered with bottles and glasses. The curtains were drawn and the host in bed with a hang-over. Whistling cheerfully, he pulled back the curtains and started clearing up. ‘Please, please,’ bleated the prostrate host, ‘no light, no noise – please. Not that terrible light, not that clattering.’ The tidier shouted: ‘Why, what’s the matter? Enjoy yourself, why don’t you? This is the other end of the party. Enjoy yourself like me!’ And he gave him a big thump on the shoulder.
There are many examples of this in everyday life. The beginning promises well (though even that momentary pleasure is often a disappointment); when it develops, it leads to pain.
Instant satisfaction is a slogan, understood as satisfaction immediately. But it contains a sting: the satisfaction lasts only an instant. So when contemplating the prospect of a party, the texts tell us to consider not merely the beginning, but also the long-drawn-out end effects. We think we see happiness in an object, but it will soon change. Almost instantly it changes into unhappiness.
Happiness does not come from grasping at objects or states of body; it can be found only in Self-realization, independent of anything else, outer or inner.
We get the illusion of happiness when we concentrate on something so that it becomes the whole world to us. Then if we get it, we feel we have got the whole world. The mind is momentarily calm and there is a shadow of happiness. But the whole world has been merely shut out for a moment; it soon returns with redoubled claims, and we find only frustration and anxiety.
(4) Seeing self where there is no self. This illusion consists in feeling oneself to be an objects such as possessions, status, the body, and so on. When they are acquired, the self feels larger; when lost, the self feels diminished. Independence has to be practised, and it has to be practised down to the very basis of our being, not merely partially.
An example of partial independence was that of Sulla, a ruthless Roman general who after a bloody civil war, became dictator and murdered many former opponents. However, he had certain characteristics of greatness. He is one of the very few dictators in history who have voluntarily relinquished power to a republic. While in power he had instituted some valuable reforms, which gave the ordinary citizen some sort of protection against the corruption of officials and judges. He also reformed the Senate. He suddenly announced that he would now retire to the country, turning over the rulership to the Senate, with the remark: ‘I have put it in the saddle; let us see whether it can ride.’ (In the event, it could not: Julius Caesar soon toppled its authority. Sulla showed impressive and courageous independence in his renunciation of supreme power, but the renunciation of status was not quite complete. Tradition has it that he died of a stroke, brought on by his fury at being contradicted by the mayor of the village where he had retired. His status was now only a memory, but he still felt it was part of himself, to be defended with every ounce of his strength.
The four illusions – seeing permanence, purity, happiness and self where they do not exist – correspond to what the Upanishads call the knots of the heart. They are ideas, fixed in memory, which bind the heart; while they are rigid and set hard, there is little opportunity for inspiration to manifest itself.
Patanjali says these things can come to form knots through the memory. One of the secrets of inspirtaion is be able to to clear the memory. This is a secret of inspiration.
Patanjali says, repeated concentration on a particular thing becomes inspired, or in his phrase Truth-bearing, when the memory is purified, and the sense ‘I am meditating’ has also been lost as it were. The purification of the memory is also the secret of the power-producing meditations. Encrusted convictions bar the way to accepting, or even imagining, any major change. Unless the memory-associations, first physical and then subtle, have been dropped off, there may be the brilliance of a vision in samadhi, but it will not necessarily be Truth-bearing. It may be some memory-association which becomes radiant, but is not necessarily a road to spiritual expansion.
We know in the world how the immense burden of out-dated associations can paralyse a whole field. For some three hundred years up to 1926, the English law of property was a fantastic tangle of recent statutes and ancient custom enshrined in legal precedents. It took years to master even the outlines. It used to be said that every law student would vow that if he ever rose to eminence i the Law, he would reform it. But for centuries, Lord Chancellors, having mastered it themselves, set their faces against change. Meaningless though it was, it had become their intellectual capital. They thought: ‘I learnt it: let them learn it.’ Then in the 1920’s, a great lawyer, Lord Birkenhead, got Parliament to take an axe to the jungle and cleared away much of the jungle.
© Trevor Leggett
Titles in this series are:
Part 1: Loosening the Knot of the Heart
Part 2: Swetaketu was a naughty boy
Part 3: Flexibility is life and rigidity is death
Part 4: Vasanas and sanskaras govern human lives
Part 5: New discoveries are made by young men