Sankara on the Yoga Sutras extract

Extracts from S’ankara on the Yoga Sutras

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.


May/June 2000

The Parallel with Medical Treatment

Introductory Note

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.

Extracts from S’ankara on the Yoga Sutras

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.

July 2000

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

(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).



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 Purusa – from illusory identification with limitations. Then Purusa 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 sutra-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 sutra-s on God (1.23-28), Sankara swings the whole trend of the practice towards oneness with God. He quotes the Gita 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 Pandava

In the Gita this is identification with the creator-Lord, also described at great length in the commentary to the five Yoga sutras 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).

The Sankara sub-commentary (Vivarana)

There has now appeared, unexpectedly, a sub-commentary which claims to be by Sankara, the great commentator on the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, and the de facto founder of the non-dual Vedanta school. He lived about AD 700, and if this is genuinely by him it will precede Vacaspati’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.

Sutra 1.28

Repetition of it and meditation on its meaning

Repetition (Uapa) of it and meditation (bhiivanii) on the Lord who is signified by OM. When the yogin thus repeats OM and meditates on its meaning, his mind becomes one-pointed. So it has been said: After OM repetition, let him set himself in yoga, After yoga, let him set himself to repetition. When OM repetition and yoga come to perfection The supreme self (paramiitman) shines forth.

When the yogin has thus understood the relation of the expression OM and its meaning, how does he attract the grace of the supreme Lord? The sutra says, Repetition of it and meditation on its meaning. Practice of repetition of OM, which is the expression of the Lord, taken as consisting of three-and-a-half measures (matra) or of three measures, is called japa; the repetition is either mental or in a low voice (uparpsu).

meditation on its meaning the meditation is setting the heart on the Lord, the meaning, who by the word OM has been recalled and brought into the mind. The words he should undertake are to be supplied at the beginning of the siitra. Yogin-s who are doing both attain one-pointedness of mind. He illustrates how the one-pointedness is the result of that worship by quoting the verse.

After OM repetition after repetition of the pranava syllable, his mind bowed before the Lord, let him set himself in yoga let him meditate on the Lord, its meaning. When his mind becomes unwavering from meditation on the Lord, the meaning, let him set himself to repetition let him repeat OM mentally. Mental repetition is recommended because it is closer to meditation (than is verbal repetition). The sense is that the mind must not run towards objects.

When OM repetition and yoga come to perfection when he is not disturbed by other ideas contrary to them, he is perfect in repetition and in yoga; by that perfection in repetition and meditation on the supreme Lord (paramesvara) the supreme self (paramatman) who stands in the highest place (paramesthin) shines forth for the yogin.

And what happens to him?

Sutra 1.29

From that, realization of the separate consciousness, and absence of obstacles

As a result of devotion to the Lord, there are none of the obstacles like illness, and he has a perception of his own true nature. As the Lord is a Purusa, pure, radiant, alone, and beyond evil, so the Purusa in him, witness of the buddhi, knows himself to be.

The commentary introduces this sutra with the words And what happens to him? The word And refers to the fact that one result, namely attainment of one-pointedness of mind, has already been mentioned in the previous siitra. And is there some other result for him, or is it perhaps one-pointedness alone? The sutra now says From that, realization of the separate consciousness and absence of obstacles. From that devotion to the Lord, there is realization of the separate consciousness: it is conscious of its own buddhi as separate, and so the self (atman) is called the separate consciousness. The realization of it is awareness of one’s own nature as it really is.