Indian philosophical systems are known as ‘darśanas.’ Unlike the Western philosophical systems, they do not depend solely on logic and reasoning, but on ‘darśana’ or ‘seeing’ or ‘experiencing’ the truth, in mystical states. Hence the appropriateness of the term. The darśanas have been classified into two groups: the āstika and the nāstika. Those that are based on the authority of the Vedas are called ‘āstika’ and the rest are ‘nāstika.’ The Cārvāka (Materialism), the Jaina and the Bauddha systems come under the latter category and, the Ṣaḍ-darśanas or the six traditional systems of Hindu philosophy, under the former.

The six traditional systems are: Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika, Sāṅkhya, Yoga, Mīmāṁsā and Vedānta. They generally deal with four topics: existence and nature of Brahman or Īśvara or God; nature of the jīva or the individual soul; creation of jagat or the world; mokṣa or liberation as also the disciplines that lead to it.

Sāṅkhya and Yoga Darśanas

The word ‘Sāṅkhya’ has been derived from ‘saṅkhyā,’ which means jñāna or knowledge. Since the Sāṅkhya system of the sage Kapila declares jñāna as the sole or primary means of attaining mokṣa—called ‘kaivalya’ in this system—it has been designated as ‘Sāṅkhya-darśana’. ‘Saṅkhyā’ also means ‘number’. Since this system has fixed the number of the basic cosmic principles as 24 + 1, it might have earned this appellation for itself.

The Sāṅkhya system accepts only puruṣa (the individual soul) and pradhāna or prakṛti (nature) as the fundamental realities and does not accept Īśvara or God. Hence it is sometimes called ‘Nirīśvara-Sāṅkhya’ (‘Sāṅkhya without Īśvara’). The Yogadarśana which accepts all the principles of the Sāṅkhya and also Īśvara or God, in addition, has been designated as ‘Seśvara-Sāṅkhya’ (‘Sāṅkhya with Īśvara’).

In the Sāṅkhya system, tattvajñāna or enquiry into the nature of truth is of primary importance. But the Yoga system deals primarily with sādhanas or spiritual disciplines. That is why the Yogasūtras of Patañjali, the basic text of the Yoga system, begins with the words atha yogānuśāsanam (‘Now, the teaching of Yoga [is begun].’), instead of the words, ‘jijñāsā’ or ‘mīmāṁsā’ (‘enquiry’).

What is Yoga?

The word ‘yoga’ can be derived from two verbal roots: yuj (to yoke) or yuj (to concentrate). Hence ‘yoga’ is that which helps a jīva or the individual soul to attain concentration on Īśvara and ultimate union with him.

The word ‘yoga’ in its several senses has been used in the Ṛgveda (5.81.1) and some of the Upaniṣads like the Kaṭha (6.10, 11; 2.12) and the Śvetāśvatara (1.3). The Bhagavadgītā (6.11, 13, 20 and 35) contains many ideas which appear to reflect the teachings of the Yogasūtras (c.f. 2.46; 1.2; 1.12). It is likely that there might have been a more ancient work on Yoga attributed to Hiraṇyagarbha, and this could have influenced other works.

The Author and His Times

Hindu tradition attributes the origin of the science of Yoga to Hiraṇyagarbha, an aspect of God himself. Two sages—Sanatkumāra and Jaigiṣavya—are sometimes stated to be the authors of Yoga-śāstra. However, their works have not been traced till now.

Among the works on Yoga available now, the Yogasūtras of Patañjali seems to be the most ancient one. Whether the Patañjali who wrote the bhāṣya or commentary on the sūtras of Pāṇini and the Patañjali of the Yogasūtras are the same or not, has not been conclusively established. A work on Āyurveda, also attributed to him, has not been traced so far.

Scholars opine that Patañjali might have lived during the period 200 B. C.—A. D. 300.

The Work

Like the other works of the six darśanas, Patañjali’s treatise also is in the form of sūtras. A sūtra is a brief mnemonic statement with a minimum of letters, but expressing a vast amount knowledge.

The Yogasūtras comprises 195 sūtras spread over four pādas or chapters. They are: Samādhipāda (sūs. 51); Sādhanapāda (sūs. 55); Vibhūtipāda (sūs. 55) and Kaivalyapāda (sūs. 34).

A Sūtra work, by its very nature, is ambiguous, if not obscure, and hence needs a commentary to unravel it. Fortunately for us, the work Yogasūtras has attracted the attention of a number of savants who have enriched the yoga literature by their earned commentaries and sub-commentaries.

The Bhāṣya of Vyāsa is regarded as the basic commentary honoured by almost all the later writers. This Vyāsa, considered to be different from the traditional Vedavyāsa, lived perhaps during the period A. D. 400.

The following are the glosses on this Vyāsabhāṣya:

Tattvavaiśāradī of Vācaspati Miśra (A. D. 850);

Yogavārttika of Vijñānabhikṣu (16th cent.);

Bhāsvatī of Hariharānanda Araṇya (19th cent.)

There is one Yogabhāṣyavivaraṇa attributed to Śaṅkara (A. D. 788-820). Whether the work is really that of the famous teacher of Advaita Vedānta or not, scholars do not seem to agree. The style of writing and the presentation, as also the belief that Śaṅkara was a great yogi, lends some support to the view that he is the author of this work.

There are at least six commentaries written directly on the Yogasūtras. They are:

Rājamārttāṇḍavṛtti of Bhojadeva (11th cent.); Yogasūtrapradīpikā of Bhāvāgaṇeśa; Yogasūtravṛtti of Nagojibhaṭṭa; Yogamaṇiprabhā of Rāmānanda Yati; Yogasiddhāntacandrikā of Nārāyaṇa Tīrtha and Yogasudhākara of Sadāśiva Brahmendra (18th cent.).

Philosophy of the Yogasūtras

Though the Yogasūtras of Patañjali is primarily a work heavily oriented towards sādhana or spiritual practice, a basic knowledge of its Sāṅkhyan background is necessary to understand it.

Yogadarśana accepts three funda-mental realities: Īśvara, puruṣas and pradhāna or prakṛti.

Puruṣas are the individual souls. They are cidrūpa or of the nature of consciousness and are infinite in number.

The existence of Īśvara, called ‘Puruṣaviśeṣa’ (‘special or unique puruṣa’) can be known only through the scriptures. He is sarvajña or omniscient. Being untouched by the shackles of prakṛti he is ever free. He is the ādiguru, the primeval teacher. He is designated by praṇava or Oṁ. It is by his will and in accordance with the karmas of the puruṣas that prakṛti, comprising the three guṇas sattva, rajas and tamas, evolves into this universe. The evolutes of prakṛti are mahat (cosmic intellect), ahaṅkāra (the ego-principle), manas (cosmic mind), the tanmātras (subtle elements) and so on, just as in the Sāṅkhyan system.

The puruṣa or the individual soul, somehow—due to avidyā or nescience—forgets his real nature as pure consciousness, gets involved with the evolutes of prakṛti and suffers all the pangs of birth, death and transmigration. However, when he performs sādhanas—the aṣṭāṅgas or the eight steps of yoga—he once again realises his essential nature and is instantly freed from saṁsāra, the cycle of transmigration. Being established in oneself, thus transcending saṁsāra, is called ‘kaivalya’.

Yoga as ‘Cittavṛttinirodha’

Patañjali defines yoga as cittavṛtti-nirodhaḥ (1.2). When all the vṛttis or modifications of the citta or the mind are controlled and suppressed (= niruddha), the true nature of the puruṣa or the Self is revealed. Citta is the mind-stuff that is variously called as antaḥkaraṇa (the inner instrument), manas (the mind) or buddhi (the intellect). The waves of thoughts, feelings and emotions that arise in it due to the impact of the sense-objects upon it through the sense-organs like the eyes and the ears, are called ‘cittavṛttis.’ Though these cittavṛttis appear to be innumerable, they can be classified under five groups: pramāṇa (means of right knowledge), viparyaya (false-knowledge), vikalpa (mental picture based on hearing a word), nidrā (sleep) and smṛti (memory).

Pramāṇa is the means of right knowledge. The pramāṇas are three: pratyakṣa (direct perception), anumāna (inference) and āgama (words of reliable persons and the scriptures).

Viparyaya is false knowledge as that of seeing a snake in a rope in semi-darkness.

Vikalpa is the mental picture that arises on hearing a word or words like “Rāhu’s head” (Rāhu, the malefic planet has only the head and no other part of the body).

Nidrā or sleep is that condition of mind where its modifications arise out of a preponderance of tamas.

Smṛti is the memory of previous experiences.

These cittavṛttis when they produce kleśa or suffering to the puruṣa due to avidyā (ignorance), asmitā (egoism) and so on, are called kliṣṭa. When they help the puruṣa to free himself from them, they become ‘akliṣṭa’.

The citta or the mind has five states: kṣipta (impulsive), mūḍha (dull), vikṣipta (distracted), ekāgra (one-pointed) and niruddha (inhibited). Yoga is not possible in the first three states since the mind is in the grip of rajas and tamas. When sattva predominates, the mind can attain one-pointedness leading it to samprajñāta-samādhi (state of perfect concentration where there is a clear cognition of the object). In the last, the niruddha state, there is a total suppression of all modifica-tions, leading to asamprajñāta-samādhi, where no object is cognized and the puruṣa remains established in his intrinsic state. Then he becomes a mukta, a liberated soul, freed from all the trammels of prakṛti.

Obstacles to Yoga

Patañjali calls the obstacles to yoga as ‘antarāyas’ (‘that which comes in between’) and lists them as nine (1.30): vyādhi (illness), styāna (apathy), saṁśaya (doubt), pramāda (heedlessness), ālasya (laziness), avirati (lack of renunciation), bhrāntidarśana (misconception), alabdha-bhūmikatva (failure to attain yogic states) and anavasthitatva (instability in the state).

Illness has to be remedied by medical treatment. Apathy has to be overcome by exercising will-power. Doubt must be countered by faith in the scriptures and the preceptor. Heedlessness must be abolished by eternal vigilance. Laziness should be conquered by healthy activity. Lack of renunciation should be nullified through viveka (discrimination) and vairāgya (detachment). The last three obstacles must be tackled as per the advice of a competent preceptor.

Patañjali names five more obstacles to yoga (1.31) since they too distract the mind. They are: duḥkha (pain), daurmanasya (frustration), aṅgamejayatva (restlessness of the limbs of the body), śvāsa and praśvāsa (spasmodic breathing in or out). They too have to be countered by appropriate remedies.

Some Practical Hints

Patañjali gives quite a few suggestions which help an aspirant to ward off the obstacles to yoga and attain greater concentration, ultimately leading to samādhi or mystical experience of the self. Out of these, vairāgya (detachment or the spirit of renunciation) and abhyāsa (constant practice) come first (1.12). The former helps one to take the mind away from the sense-objects whereas the latter leads it towards the Self or God.

Other hints given are: an attitude of friendship (maitrī) towards those who are happy (instead of feeling jealous of them); compassion (karuṇā) towards those who are suffering; controlling the prāṇic energy by regulating the breath; meditating on the light in the centre of one’s heart; contemplating on the minds of great persons; repeatedly remembering highly elevating dreams if one had had them; and contemplating on the forms of gods and goddesses or planets like the moon or the psychic centres in one’s own body.

All these methods help the spiritual aspirant to gain peace of mind as also greater control over it.

Aṣṭāṅgas or Eight Steps

The puruṣa or the jīvātman (indi-vidual soul) is in bondage because of his inordinate attachment to his body-mind complex, which is a product of prakṛti. The aim of yoga is ‘viyoga’ (separating) of the puruṣa from the clutches of prakṛti. This comes about by vivekakhyāti or the knowledge that prakṛti and puruṣa are essentially separate from each other (khyāti = knowledge; viveka = discrimi-nation).

The Yogasūtras prescribes a graded discipline comprising eight steps, called the ‘aṣṭāṅgas’ of yoga. They are: yama (restraint), niyama (observances), āsana (posture), prāṇāyāma (control of vital currents), pratyāhāra (state of withdrawal), dhāraṇā (concentration), dhyāna (meditation) and samādhi (total absorption). Out of these, the first five are considered as ‘bahiraṅgas’ (external aids) and the last three as ‘antaraṅgas’ (internal aids) to yoga.

Ahiṁsā (non-injury), satya (truth), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacarya (continence) and aparigraha (non-acceptance of gifts) constitute yama, the first step.

Niyama includes śauca (cleanliness), santoṣa (contentment), tapas (austerity of body, speech and mind), svādhyāya (study of holy books and repetition of mantras like Oṁ), and Īśvarapraṇidhāna (devotion to God).

The former contribute to social harmony and the latter to personal purity. The three disciplines of tapas, svādhyāya and īśvarapraṇidhāna are grouped together by Patañjali and christened as ‘Kriyāyoga’. It is effective as a shortcut to yoga.

Āsana is that posture in which one can sit steadily and comfortably for the practice of yoga. Prāṇāyāma is controlling the vital airs in the body, through the regulation of breathing. When the sense-organs are withdrawn from the sense-objects they remain merged as it were, in the mind. This is called pratyāhāra.

The next three disciplines—dhāraṇā, dhyāna and samādhi—are actually three continuous steps of the same process. In dhāraṇā, the mind is fixed on the object of concentration. When this concentration becomes uninterrupted, like the oil being poured from one vessel into another, it is dhyāna. When dhyāna ripens into a state of total absorption on the object, so much so, that the aspirant is not aware of even his own existence, it is called samādhi. Samādhi can be attained by īśvara-praṇidhāna or devotion to God also (1.23).

Patañjali terms these three steps together as ‘saṁyama’. And, this saṁyama should always be on one and the same object.


The belief that one can attain supernatural powers by tapas and by the grace of God is very ancient. Patañjali describes quite a few of such powers in the second and the third chapters in order to generate faith in the minds of the ordinary seekers of truth. For instance, he declares that while in the company of a person who is well-established in the virtue of ahiṁsā, even animals inimical to one another (like a tiger and a cow) will live in peace and mutual harmony. The words of a person rooted in satya will be infallible. One who observes aparigraha very strictly can get a knowledge of his past and future lives (vide 2.35, 36 and 39).

Saṁyama on different objects will endow the yogi with several occult powers. For instance, by saṁyama on the five elements like pṛthvī (earth) and ap (water), the yogi can get aṣṭasiddhis or the eight-fold powers like aṇimā (power to become atomic in size), mahimā (power to grow to any large size) and so on (3.44, 45). Some of the other powers given in the work are: thought-reading, disappearance from view, getting enormous strength, understanding the language of animals and other creatures, and so on.

However, Patañjali, who as a scientist of mind, describes these powers (since they are part of the science), also cautions the aspirant of yoga not to seek them. The temptation for these powers can lead him away from the goal of his life, viz., kaivalya or liberation. But, after the attainment of kaivalya—since he may continue to live for some more time due to prārabdha-karma (the karma that has started this life)—he will have those powers and can safely use them for the good of mankind.


The Yogadarśana is not only ancient but also very practical. Even the Vedāntic systems accept its sādhana aspects. Modern psychologists too are discovering its utility in guarding or in regaining mental health. Methods and techniques of yoga are becoming quite popular all over the world. The first two steps—yama and niyama—can contribute to the well-being of the individual as well as of the society. The various āsanas—better known as yogāsanas—can help in regaining or maintaining one’s health. Thus the Yoga system is gradually gaining universal acceptance.