Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras and the Noble Truths of the Buddha

With Due credit: Published in Bhavan’s Journal in India, October 15, 2015

The Buddha was a great yogi with subtle natural, (often mislabeled super natural) powers; and Patañjali was a buddha, an awakened one. The teachings which resulted from their insights have had an immense influence in the world. Are there parallels between the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali and the celebrated Four Noble Truths of the Buddha? Since both of these are dealing with a diagnosis of the fundamental human situation, and a way of overcoming suffering and bondage, it should be surprising if they do not have many things in common. And if we do discover quite different perspectives and metaphors, our understanding of both of them is likely to be enhanced. In what follows, each Noble Truth, as found in Samyutta Nikaya, 5.421 ff., constituting a part of the first sermon delivered by the Buddha at Sarnath after his enlightenment, will be mentioned in turn, along with bringing together the relevant teachings of Patañjali in the Yoga Sutras.

The Noble Truth of Dukkha (Suffering): The Buddha said, "Birth is sorrow, age is sorrow, disease is sorrow, death is sorrow; contact with the unpleasant is sorrow, separation from the pleasant is sorrow-- in short all the five components (khandhas) of individuality are sorrow." The five components in question here are form (rupa), sensation (vedana), perceptions (sanna), psychic dispositions (samkhara) and consciousness (vinnana), and a combination of these components is what constitutes a human individuality the preeminent characteristic of which
is transience.

The teaching of the Buddha begins by a recognition of dukkha (suffering) as a fundamental fact of human existence. The root meaning of the word dukkha is based on the sound made by a wheel turning around an axis which is not
perfectly rightly centered. In human beings dukkha conveys a sense of suffering arising out of a lack of perfect matching of one's understanding with reality. Thus, not to accept the truth of transience of oneself, and not to live in
accordance with it-- as one does not when one wishes the continuation of any state of existence, or of existence itself-- inevitably leads to sorrow, simply because it is not in accord with reality.

One of the kleshas (hindrances) enumerated by Patañjali is abhinivesha and YS 2.9
sva-rasa-vāhī viduṣo’ pi tathā rūdḥo’ bhiniveśaḥ 

Abhinivesha is the automatic tendency for continuity; it overwhelms even the wise.

Although abhinivesha is sometimes translated as ‘a wish to live,’ it is closer to ‘a wish to continue,’ or ‘a wish to preserve the status quo.’ Abhinivesha is what is technically called “inertia” in physics, as in Newton’s First Law of Motion (also called the Law of Inertia) according to which a body continues in a state of rest or of motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an external force. Abhinivesha is the wish for continuity of any state and any situation, because it is known. We fear the unknown and therefore we fear change which may lead to the unknown.
In fact, this fear is of a discontinuation of the known, simply because the unknown, if it is truly unknown, cannot produce fear or pleasure.

YS 2:15 says that for a discerning mind all is indeed sorrow owing to the pain caused by change (parinam), the suffering caused by deep-seated conditioning (sanskara) of the psyche, and the unhappiness generated by the opposition between the fluctuations of the mind (vrtti) and the contours of reality (gunas).

pariṇāma-tāpa-saṃskāra-duḥkhair-guṇa-vṛtti-virodhāch-chaduḥkham-eva sarvaṃ vivekinaḥ

For the discerning, all is sorrow, resulting from the mismatch between what is actual and what is thought, and because of the suffering inherent in change, pain, and from past conditioning.

Because of the consequences of the force of abhinivesha (see 2.9), the klesha which causes us to wish to continue in the state which is known, we suffer when there is a possibility of change. But change is constant. The universe is dynamic, constantly subject to the force of time: we move from one place to another; we see the seasons change and the movement of the planets; we grow old; we die. Even when pleasure exists, the very impermanence of pleasure leads to sorrow. There are instances of pain, and sorrowful consequences of past experiences which are rooted in all the kleshas. Therefore, for the discerning, dukkha is a pervasive feature of life.

The Noble Truth of Arising of Dukkha: "This is the noble truth of the arising of sorrow," said the Buddha. "It arises from craving (tanha) which leads to rebirth, which brings delight and passion, and seeks pleasure now here, now there-- the craving for sensual pleasure, the craving for continued life, the craving for power." This tanha, of course, is not the ultimate or the only cause of dukkha, as we know from the series known as 'conditioned origination' (paticca-samuppada). Although tanha is the immediately discernible cause of suffering, there is an interdependent series of causes, going all the way back to ignorance (avijja) as the fundamental cause. According to Patañjali, YS 2:3-4, kleshas, the causes of suffering, are five: ignorance (avidya), egoism or a sense of a separate self (asmita), attachment to pleasure (raga), aversion to pain (dvesha), and clinging to the status quo (abhinivesha). And out of these five kleshas, avidya (avijja in Pali, as above) is the fundamental one, because all the others arise from it.

The sutras YS 2:3-4 are:

avidyā-asmitā-rāga-dveṣa-abhiniveśāḥ kleśāḥ

The kleshas are ignorance (avidya), the sense of a separate self (asmita), attraction (raga), aversion (dvesha), and clinging to the status quo (abhinivesha).


avidyā kṣetram-uttareṣāṃ prasupta-tanu-vichchhinna-udārāṇām

Avidya is the cause of all the others, whether dormant, attenuated, intermittent, or fully active.

For the Buddha, the causes of suffering are many but the emphasis here is on tanha, selfish desire or simply selfishness. For Patañjali also there are several sources of suffering, but rather than tanha he emphasizes the mismatch between the way it actually is--determined by the interaction of the gunas, the forces and constituents of Prakriti--and what the mind thinks and expects, as shaped by the vrittis. The gulf between reality and thought leads to sorrow. In our life, this gap is most manifest in our expectations of ourselves and of other people and our actual experience.

For the existentialist philosophers, who assume that the mind is the knower of reality, the recognition of the fact that reality does not correspond to thought led to the conclusion that the universe is absurd. This assumption is strenuously denied by all of Indian philosophy, and in any case by the Buddha and by Patañjali for whom the mind is only an instrument of knowledge. The real knower is above the usual mind; for Patañjali it is Purusha, who knows through the mind and not with the mind. Purusha alone can know reality, and only when the mind is completely free of the vrittis can it act as a perfect instrument of knowledge. Then we do not have expectations about the world and about others, we see and accept reality as it is.

The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Dukkha: The Noble Truth of the cessation (nirodha) of dukkha "is the complete stopping of that craving (tanha), so that no passion remains, leaving it, being emanicipated from it, being released from it, giving no place to it.” This state of the radical eradication of tanha recommended in the Third Noble Truth is tantamount to Nirvana (Nibbana in Pali) which is tanhakkhaya (extinction of craving). In keeping with the general tenor of the Buddhist writings, most of the descriptions of Nirvana are given in negative terms, as extinction of attachment to pleasure (raga), of attachment to hatred (dvesha in Sanskrit or dosha in Pali), and extinction of illusion (moha). Then there is the state of the Absolute: unborn, ungrown and unconditioned. The Yoga Sutras
1:2-4 define the whole point of yoga to be the cessation (nirodha) of the fluctuations (vritti) of the mind. These fluctuations all arise because of the kleshas spoken about above. When freed from the kleshas and the vrittis, the Seer is established in one's true, original, unchanging and unconditioned nature.

The sutras YS 1:2-4 are:


Yoga is the stopping of all the movements (vritti) of the mind (chitta).

tadā draṣṭuḥ sva-rūpe’ vasthānam

Then the Seer dwells in its essential nature.


Otherwise the movements of the mind (vrittis) are regarded as the Seer.

There is no need here to engage with the notion of atman in the theory of Yoga in contradistinction to the teachings of the Buddha of no-self, because the Seer is said to be nothing but pure seeing itself (YS 2:20):

draṣṭā dṛśi-mātraḥ śuddho’ pi pratyaya-anupaśyaḥ

The Seer is only the power of pure seeing. Although pure, the Seer appears to see with the mind.

Still, it is worth mentioning that the Buddha does not deny the presence of the great Self as asserted in the Upanishads and in Vedanta. However this Self, just like Nirvana, cannot be described and the Upanishads repeatedly say neti, neti (not this, not this). What the Buddha denied was the permanence or reality of the ego self which is constantly subject to change. Patañjali says in YS 2.2 that

samādhi-bhāvana-arthaḥ kleśa-tanū-karaṇa-arthaś-cha

Yoga is for cultivating samādhi and for weakening the hindrances (kleshas).

Among the kleshas to be removed, see YS 2.3 quoted above, is asmitā, the sense of a separate self –precisely what the Buddha maintained in his doctrine of anātmā (no self). Furthermore, the state of samādhi is described in YS 3.3, as a state of consciousness free from the self.

tad-eva-artha-mātra-nirbhāsaṃ sva-rūpa-śūnyam-iva samādhiḥ

Samadhi is the state when the self is not, when there is awareness only of the object of meditation

The Noble Truth of the Way Leading to the Cessation of Dukkha: The Buddhapreached the Middle Path (Majjhima Patipada) "which gives vision and knowledge, which leads to Calm, Insight, Enlightenment, Nirvana." This Middle
Path is generally known as the Noble Eightfold Path (Ariya Atthangika Magga) consisting of the following eight components: 1. Right Understanding (samma ditthi), 2. Right Thought (samma sankappa), 3. Right Speech (samma vaca), 4. Right Action (samma kammanta), 5. Right Livelihood (samma ajiva), 6. Right Effort (samma vayama), 7. Right Mindfulness (samma sati), 8. Right Concentration (samma samadhi).

The whole of the Yoga Sutras is concerned with the transformation of consciousness leading to freedom from all the causes of suffering. The practice of Yoga is especially elaborated in YS 2:28-55; 3:1-12. The way to the ultimate
freedom is an unceasing vision of discernment (viveka) which is aided by the eight-limbed (aśtāṇga) path of yoga. The eight limbs are: 1. Yamas: the laws of life, consisting of non-violation, truthfulness, non-stealing, containment and nongrasping. 2. Niyamas: the rules for living, consisting of purity, contentment, selfdiscipline, self-study and surrender to the Higher Energy (Ishvara). 3. Asana: postures and attitudes, external and internal. 4. Pranayama: Regulation of vital energies, including breath. 5. Pratyahara: control of the senses. 6. Dharana: steadiness of mind. 7. Dhyana: meditation. 8. Samadhi: the silent and settled mind.

The highest state of consciousness is called Kaivalya by Patañjali. This is, of course, as difficult to describe or comprehend as is Nirvana. But the following few sutras indicate some flavour of it paralleling the few descriptions of Nirvana.

tārakaṃ sarva-viṣayaṃ sarvathā-viṣayam-akramaṃ cha-iti viveka-jaṃ jnānam

This jñana born of viveka is liberating, comprehensive, eternal, and freed of time sequence.

tadā viveka-nimnaṃ kaivalya-prāgbhāraṃ chittam

Then, deep in viveka, chitta gravitates towards Kaivalya.

prasaṃkhyāne’ py-akusīdasya sarvathā viveka-khyāter-dharmameghaḥ samādhiḥ

One who, due to perfect discrimination, is totally non-grasping even of the highest rewards, remains in constant viveka, which is called dharmamegha (cloud of dharma) samadhi.

tataḥ kleśa-karma-nivṛttiḥ

From that follows freedom from action colored by kleshas.

tadā sarva-āvaraṇa-mala-apetasya jnānasya-ānantyāj-jñeyamalpam

Then all the coverings and impurities of knowledge are totally removed. Because of the vastness of this jñana, little remains to be known.

Clearly, there are many very interesting and close parallels between the Yoga Sutras and the Noble Truths of the Buddha, as we should have expected. Even the greatest expressions of Truth are at best different “repeated raids on the inexpressible,” in the felicitous phrase of T.S. Eliot. There can hardly be any doubt that Patañjali and the Buddha would have embraced each other with much friendliness, happiness and appreciation.


Acknowledgements: Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, Professor in the Philosophy Department in Thammasat University, Bangkok, Thailand, and myself had started a discussion about the Yoga Sutras and the Noble Truths of the Buddha in 1984. But we did not get far before she renounced the world and became a Buddhist nun with the name Dhammananda Samaneri. I am grateful to her for the initial exchange.