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The Ethics of

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

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Yoga Ethics: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras


“Although nothing lasts, suffering is everywhere, and the ‘me’ that suffers isn’t even real.”

The Buddha



“The aim of Yoga is to free (viyoga) man from the meshes of matter.”

—Rai Bahadur Srisa Chandra Vasu



            What should I do with my life?  This timeless question is fundamental for any thinking thing that seeks a purpose to its existence.  Yoga claims to have found the ever-elusive answer.  Generally, in order to understand moral philosophy, the hosting metaphysical view must first be understood—such is the case with yoga.  What a human being should do with its life is clear and almost self-evident once the metaphysics is grasped.  The following will be a description of the metaphysics and moral philosophy of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as described by Prabhavananda, followed by a critical evaluation of thus.  Let’s explore!


            Yoga is a pantheistic philosophy—that is, all is God and God is All.  God is both omnipotent and omniscient.  To describe God as the Ruler of the universe, He is Ishwara.  To describe the spark of God that is within each body, he is named Purusha or Atman.  The term universe, synonyms with Brahman, identifies God as the Housing or Container of all.  The universe is eternal—it always has existed, exists now, and always will exist; more specifically, the universe is outside of time.  Time itself is but an illusion that there is a sequence of objects named moments.


            Praktiri is “the power of effect of Brahman” (Prabhavananda, 15); Aristotle would identify Praktiri as the Efficient Cause of the universe, for all things it is that which brings about (causes) form and change.  When the universe is balanced, all is undifferentiated prakriti.


            The three gunas are energies or qualities, a triad of forces caused by prakriti.  The three gunas equal Aristotle’s material Cause, the substances which (all) things are made.  The first of the three is named sattwa.  Identical to Aristotle’s Formal cause, it is that which causes a thing's form or shape.  The second guna is raja.  Interestingly, though rajas was essentially caused by prakriti, it itself is the Essential cause of substances or matter.  Tamas is the third guna.  This member of the triad resists the effect of rajas.  As for the nature of the gunas (which is just an alternative way to state the above), sattwa is ideal, raja is active, and tamas is resistant.


            When the gunas become unbalanced, matter differentiates.  The differences in the influence each guna has on the others accounts for the vast variety of different substances.


            As the unbalanced gunas begin to create the substances in the universe, first what is best described as Thomas Aquinas’ Designer in his Fifth Way is formed.  The Designer creates the discriminating faculty—that which classifies and reacts—and this faculty creates the individual ego.  The ego creates the recording faculty, the five senses, and “inner essences.”  Finally, these “inner essences” create earth, water, fire, air, and ether.


            So, the mind contains three faculties:  the recording faculty, the discriminative faculty, and the storage faculty.  The mind itself is an object of perception.  The individual ego sense is caused by the Atman incorrectly identifying itself as the mind.  The mind merely reflects the consciousness of the Atman and so appears conscious, but it is by no means itself a conscious thing.


            The mind contains samaskaras, which are “built up and continued action of the thought waves, and[…] they create new though waves” (Prabhavananda, 4).  By continually thinking about certain kinds of thoughts, say lustful, we create a stockpile of lustful thought-waves that in turn radiate lustful thoughts into the mind.  Some of the samaskaras are acquired from past lives, and the typical mind is usually creating them.  Samaskaras define character.


            Knowledge is an object; it is a thought-wave.  All knowledge is obtained through the senses—Yoga is empirical.  Truth is defined as the correspondence theory of truth; that is, a thought-wave (idea or belief) is true if it corresponds to what actually exists (if it corresponds to fact).


            The eighth sutra of the first section makes for an interesting analysis of the nature of knowledge.  Prabhavananda translates this sutra as the following: “Wrong knowledge is knowledge which is false and not based upon the true nature of its object.”  Knowledge, by definition, is true.  The term “false knowledge” is clearly self-contradicting, for that would be like claiming a false truth, and logic demands that anything which is true cannot at the same time be not true.


            Prasada, however, translated the same sutra to thus: “Unreal Cognition is the knowing of the unreal, possessing a form not its own.”  This statement is not self-contradictory.  It is possible to have knowledge of the unreal; knowledge is obtained through the senses.  To use Vyasa’s example, when I look at the moon, I perceive two moons (one with each eye); since it is true that I perceive two moons, I have knowledge that I perceive two moons.  It is not true that there are two moons (the two moons are unreal) since the moons do not correspond to what actually exists (which is one moon).  I this way, we can know the unreal—this is not the same as stating that one can know that which does not exist (which, as Parmenides reminds us, we could neither recognize nor express), nor is it the same as stating the self-contradictory statement “false knowledge is possible.”  It is simply a complicated way of stating, as Hume would state, that all we can know is our own perceptions, and our perceptions may not correspond to “things-in-themselves.”  So, while Prabhavananda’s translation of this description of knowledge is self-contradicting, Prasada’s is consistent with itself.


            Although I do not have enough information to label it either psychological or ethical hedonism, yoga does share with them similarities.  Happiness equals pleasure and unhappiness equals the absence of pleasure.  Pleasure causes attachment while pain causes aversions.  Pain is not defined in its usual sense—it is not the opposite of pleasure.  Painful thought-waves are described as those that lead to ignorance and bondage.  Indeed, as pleasure is an attachment (bondage), a painful thought-wave can be pleasurable (with the definitions stated herein, this is not a self-contradicting statement).  Additionally, the Atman itself is happiness.[1]


            Now that the metaphysics has been described, the ethics flow naturally and almost self-evidently.  Like the Q’s in Star Trek, we are all a race of omnipotent and omniscient beings.  Somehow we have forgotten this and, by means of the individual ego sense, identify ourselves as lesser things—our own creations.  What we should do then is to remember or relearn our true nature.  We should escape suffering.  We should reclaim our Godhood.


            To reclaim our Godhood, we must first recognize the Spark of Devine within, the Atman.  After freeing ourselves from all attachments and aversions in this life and the next, we need to perceive the Atman within—thus, as knowledge is derived from the senses, we gain knowledge of our Godhood.  Then, realizing that it is no longer needed or useful, we unattach and release the storage faculty in the mind.  In doing so we forevermore will neither identify ourselves with the mind, suffer the effects of our actions (karma), nor will we seek rebirth—it can then be stated truly that we are liberated.  Then, after this life, the mind dissolved into praktiri.  In this way, we can seize the eternal claim to our Godhood.


            It is worthwhile to consider how other philosophies would have responded were they aware of the philosophy stated above.  I see many relations to Buddhism, like the cause of suffering and the nature of the ego.  In fact, I see no contradictions between the two (though this could be simply do to my ignorance).  Being geographical neighbors, I am curious as to whether the two “of life” drew from the same sources.


            I also wonder if there are any historical relations between yoga and Cynicism.  The cynics would agree that cares of the world of perceptions were unneeded obstacles that lead to corruption.  The Stoics, who built upon Cynicism, were pantheists like the yogis.  The Stoics and the yogis agree that attachments and aversions in this world are bad and create bondage.


            It is fascinating to observe how these two pantheistic philosophies reached different worldviews.  Both Stoicism and yoga agree that the “individual consciousness” is a “spark” of God.  While yoga reasons that this means that we are God and the spark omnipotent, omniscient, and so on, the Stoics reason that the spark is but a finite fragment of the Infinite God, and as a fragment it is our duty to be worthy of Him and to accept all that is as it is (since All is God and God is All, to be angry or upset with anything was to be angry or upset with God).[2]


            Epicurus, the hedonist who “saved mankind from religion,” likely would have embraced yoga as described by Prabhavananda.  Both being monists, the atomism of Epicurus could easily be related to prakriti and the gunas.  Epicurus already accepted that God or gods exist, and Epicurus would have no need to fend against a philosophy that claimed each person to actually be God Himself.


            Mental pleasures, Epicurus argued, are of a higher quality and thus superior to physical pleasures.  If pleasure is happiness, and happiness is the Atman, then pleasure is the Atman.  For Epicurus, or any hedonist whatsoever, since pleasure it the Good, what possibly could be better than actually being pleasure itself?


            Kant’s distinction between the Phenomenal reality (the world as we perceive it) and Noumenal reality (the world as it actually is) compliment yoga well.  Kantian formalism could have found a home in yoga and given much needed shielding against the sword swung by the Destroyer of Philosophies himself—for few are those who can even begin to fend against the wonderful wrath of Hume!


            Hume and yoga agree that all knowledge must be based on perception.  They agree that a true idea or thought must correspond to reality.  The both agree that knowledge of an ego is impossible.  Ultimately, however, the perhaps most consistent philosopher of all time would destroy and hang yoga in his trophy case.  Yoga, an empirical philosophy, claims that knowledge of our Godhood (Atman) is only obtained by perception.  Add what adjectives you may: super-sensuous perception, extra-sensory perception, or what you will; nevertheless, it is but a perception.  Both Hume and yoga begin with the same premises of truth and knowledge; however, like the empiricists Locke and Berkeley before him, yoga fails to arrive at the conclusions that necessarily follow from its initial premises.  And that necessary conclusion Hume stated as precisely thus: “all knowledge is limited to our impressions: everything else is a product of the imagination.”  In other words, all we can know are perceptions-in-themselves and never—even if the perceptions do relate to objects—the objects perceived.[3]


“The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, repass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations.”

—David Hume


“As a philosophical critic Hume has few peers.  No one has challenged more sharply rationalism’s central thesis that matters of fact can be known without recourse to experience; nor has anyone revealed more dclearly the severe problems raised by insisting that all factual claims be empirically verified.”

—John W. Lenz


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"Let everything about you breathe the calm and peace of the soul."

Works Citied






Denise, Peterfreund, and White.  Great Traditions in Ethics.  9th ed.  Wadsworth publishing Company.  Belmont: California.  1999.


Prabhavananda, Swami.  Patanjali Yoga Sutras.  Sri Ramakrishna Math.  Mylapore: Chennai.


Prasada, Rama.  Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.  Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.  New Delhi.  2000.


Soccio, Douglas J. Archtypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy.  3rd ed.  Wadsworth Publishing Company.  Belmont: CA. 1998.

[1] For support of this paragraph, see: Prabhavananda, pages 3, 6, 77, and 106.

[2] It is also of interest to note that Stoicism shares many further similarities with the Sutras as described by Vyasa (as translated by Prasada).


[3] Note: Hume’s philosophy is by far more powerful, detailed, and broad than the scope of this paper can describe.


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