Klesha and Karma: Yoga and Philosophy (originally posted October 2014 and edited a little now.)
Klesha (the causes of suffering)
Karma (the results of action)
Klesha and Karma are closely related to each other in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. The part that we are reading about is mainly where the term klesha is defined and its five elements explained, in the very first part of Chapter 2. We also begin to look at the concept of Karma, at least to note its relation to Klesha.
Here are some Definitions:
Monier-Williams Dictionary of Sanskrit defines “klesha” as “pain, affliction, distress, pain from disease, anguish”.
Karma is defined in Monier-Williams:
kR, root of karma: To do, make, perform, accomplish, cause, effect, prepare, undertake. And many more nuances of the same. Much more...
Let’s go deeper. The concept of karma being considered here and this simple explanation that right on the face of it, any action or any doing is karma. The yogis understand that only Prakriti, or material existence, can do anything. Purusha, the soul, the witness and the true Seer of all the interaction and doing of Prakriti, itself does nothing. Prakriti consists of all substances and all doings of all substances. It is all of physical existence, from electric impulse of thought in a synapse to those boiling-sulphur lava beds kicking out new parts of our planet in Iceland, is the product of the infinite interaction of the principles of rajas or activity/energy, tamas or inertia/stability, and sattva or illumination/lucidity.
All your citta vrttis and all the doing that comes from them are at their root the interaction of Prakriti with itself. Karma is what Prakriti does.
Now let’s go to the beginning of the Sutra. Yoga is defined as the stopping of the movements of the mind, the citta vrttis (YS 1.2). (And remember what we said above, that the citta vrttis are all at their root the interaction of the Gunas sattva, rajas and tamas. Don’t forget this.)
We have our first mention of the notion of Klesha in YS 1.5
1.5 vṛttayaḥ pañcatayyaḥ kliṣṭākliṣṭāḥ
Iyengar transl.: The movements of consciousness are fivefold. They may be cognizable or non-cognizable, painful or non-painful.
Bryant translation: There are five kinds of changing states of the mind, and they are either detrimental or nondetrimental [to the practice of yoga].
Hariharananda transl. : They fall into five varieties of which some are kliṣṭa and the rest akliṣṭa. [kliṣṭa: mental process which has its base in Kleśas such as avidyā, etc., and are the sources of all latencies.
And in Vyasa’s earliest authoritative commentary that precedes all these shown above, he shows a direct causal relation between the Kleshas and the turning of the Wheel of Karma.
“The painful are those that cause the afflictions and become the field for the growth of the vehicle of actions (karmashaya). The not-painful are those that have discrimination for their object and which oppose the functioning of the ‘qualities’ [gunas]. They remain not painful even though fallen into the stream of the painful. They are not painful even in the intervals of the painful. The painful also remain in the intervals of the not painful.”
Vyasa goes on and gets even more detailed, but I wanted to point this part out. First, he says it is only the afflictive sorts of mind activities, the ones that cause or are based in some suffering, that set in motion what we call the wheel of karma. Secondly, he explains by contrast what non-afflictive thoughts are like. It is these non-afflictive movements of mind that Yogis are working to cultivate.
Which brings us to the Yoga Sutra of this session today: We look at Chapter 2, the Chapter on Practice. We are skipping over the very first sutra of the chapter because it is action packed and we discussed it in last month’s Yoga and Philosophy session on Kriya Yoga. But the very second sutra takes us to Patanjali’s first statement on the relation between yoga practice and those causes of suffering, the Kleshas.
2.2 samādhi-bhāvanārthaḥ kleśa-tanū-karaṇārthaś ca
Iyengar: The practice of yoga reduces afflictions and leads to samadhi.
Bryant: [The yoga of action] is for bringing about Samadhi and for weakening the impediments [to yoga].
Hariharananda: That Kriyā-yoga (should be practiced) for bringing about Samādhi and minimizing the Kleśas.
Practicing yoga through to the last limb, Samadhi, you can reduce the Kleshas. It’s a long row to hoe, but it can do the job.
The kleshas are also (like the citta vrttis) five in number, and the order of their listing is important. From the first and primary klesha comes the second, from the second come the third and fourth, and then the fifth as its own special, culminating category. They are:
2.3 avidya asmitā rāga dveṣa abhiniveśāḥ kleśāḥ
Iyengar: The five afflictions which can disturb the equilibrium of consciousness are: ignorance or lack of wisdom, ego, pride of the ego or the sense of “I”, attachment to pleasure, aversion to pain, fear of death and clinging to life.
Bryant: The impediments [to Samadhi] are nescience, ego, desire, aversion, and clinging to life.
Hariharananda: Avidyā (misapprehension about the real nature of things), Asmitā (egoism), Rāga (attachment), Dveṣa (aversion), and Abhiniveśa (fear of death) are the five Kleśas (afflictions).
This next sutra explains the primacy of avidya, or ignorance, among the five kleshas.
2.4 avidyā kṣetram uttareṣāṁ prasupta-tanu-vicchinnodārāṇām
Iyengar: Lack of true knowledge is the source of all pains and sorrows whether dormant, attenuated, interrupted or fully active.
Bryant: Ignorance is the breeding ground of the other klesas, whether they are in a dormant, weak, intermittent, or fully activated state.
Hariharananda: Avidyā is the breeding ground for the others whether they be dormant, attenuated, interrupted or active.
Vyasa adds in his commentary that the ignorance of avidya is very different than, for instance, the citta vrtti called “wrong knowledge or understanding” (see YS 1.8). Viparyaya, or wrong knowledge, is a mistaken idea about a single thing, easy to fix with the application of Pramana, or right knowledge. But Avidya is an underlying condition of fundamental ignorance—we have the wrong idea of everything—it is a state of such profound ignorance that it affects all thoughts and actions that arise. This ignorance is a state of being. Changing one’s state of being is a much larger project than just learning to spot and fix the errors in your parsvakonasana.
Now Patanjali gives the list of Kleshas in detail in the next several sutras:
2.5 anityāśuci-duḥkhānātmasu nitya-śuci-sukhātma-khyātir avidyā
Iyengar: Mistaking the transient for the permanent, the impure for the pure, pain for pleasure, and that which is not the self for the self: all this is called lack of spiritual knowledge, avidya.
Bryant: Ignorance is the notion that takes the self, which is joyful, pure, and eternal, to be the nonself, which is painful, unclean, and temporary.
Hariharananda: Avidyā consists in regarding a transient object as everlasting, an impure object as pure, misery as happiness and the non-self as self.
If you do not know the difference between what is permanent and what is not, you can be drawn into thinking your perception of your self is a permanent thing. If you don’t know the limits of your senses, you will think that what you perceive to exist is in fact the totality of your existence, and that your view is the only, or the most clear and clean.
2.6 dṛg–darśana–śaktyor ekātmatevāsmitā
Iyengar: Egoism is the identification of the seer with the instrumental power of seeing.
Bryant: Ego is [to consider] the nature of the seer and the nature of the instrumental power of seeing to be the same thing.
Hariharananda: Asmitā is tantamount to the identification of Puruṣa or pure Consciousness with Buddhi.
Patanjali says here that in our misunderstanding, we think the organ of perception IS the perceiver. We do not understand the nature of the seer (Purusha, the soul) and we think the instrument of perception is the one who sees. Whereas the eye, the optic nerve, the visual cortex of the central nervous system, and the mind that is interpreting all that complex information the eye transmits, are all entirely Prakriti. Thus, we wind up considering this physical, limited, prakritic instrument to be the only thing there is, and we call it our “self”. This is a demonstrably false and limited sense of our self, and Patanjali calls it Egoism.
If you are engaged by this (limited) self, you will try to preserve it by giving it things it likes or ‘needs,’ in order to maintain the status quo. Satisfying the needs of the mutable instrument never works for long if at all, but we always try. We become attached to and even proud of the things that give pleasure and reinforcement to our sense of our self. [See Ozymandias.]
II.7 sukhānuśayī rāgaḥ
I: Pleasure leads to desire and emotional attachment.
B: Attachment stems from [experiences] of happiness.
H: Attachment is that (modification) which follows remembrance of pleasure.
And you will try to avoid, or even wish evil upon, those things that might damage your idea or experience of your self. This too, never works for long. [see Ozymandias.]
2.8 duḥkhānuśayī dveṣaḥ
I: Unhappiness leads to hatred.
B: Aversion stems from [experiences] of pain.
H: Aversion is that (modification) which results from misery.
And if you think this body and mind are your ultimate reality you will be very averse to losing them. [see Ozymandias.]
2.9 svarasa-vāhī viduṣo ‘pi tathārūḍho ‘bhiniveśaḥ
I: Self-preservation or attachment to life is the subtlest of all afflictions. It is found even in wise men.
B: [The tendency of] clinging to life affects even the wise; it is an inherent tendency.
H: As in the ignorant so in the learned, the firmly established inborn fear of annihilation is the affliction called Abhiniveśa.
This aversion occurs from the conscious surface of our thoughts on down to the unconscious, cellular, neurochemical, and even the genetic level. It is pervasive and no body, no mind, is immune to it. Prakriti likes playing with prakriti, so it will keep trying to do that.
The practice of going inward (to discover and to integrate with who you really are) is the way to minimize this fundamental misunderstanding and the afflictions it brings.
II.10 te pratiprasava-heyāḥ sūkṣmāḥ
I: Subtle afflictions are to be minimized and eradicated by a process of involution.
B: These kleśas are subtle; they are destroyed when [the mind] dissolves back into its original matrix.
H: The subtle Kleśas are forsaken (i.e., destroyed) by the cessation of productivity (i.e., disappearance) of the mind.
Meditation will silence these kleshas and their offshoots.
II.11 dhyāna-heyās tad-vṛttayaḥ
I: The fluctuations of consciousness created by gross and subtle afflictions are to be silenced through meditation.
B: The states of mind produced by these kleśas are eliminated by meditation.
H: Their means of subsistence or their gross states are avoidable by meditation.
There you go then. Meditation will eliminate the causes of suffering.
So where does Karma fit in?
Now let us examine Karma again and how Kleshotic influences shape our actions.
Remember Vyasa’s statement that comes waay early in the sutra, after YS I.5:
“The painful are those that cause the afflictions and become the field for the growth of the vehicle of actions (karmashaya).
How do the Kleshas cause us to act?
If we fundamentally do not understand that what we look at in the mirror is not our true selves, we see that transitory thing as separate from other things and because it’s all we think we’ve got, we try to preserve it.
Ignorance leads to the sense of “I”-ness, a separate self made of transient materials, that somehow needs to be preserved.
And because all sorts of wonderful and joyful experiences are possible by means of this always-changing, but seemingly distinct “I” body, and to provide for its preservation is pleasurable, that “I” becomes attached to pleasurable experiences.
From our effort to preserve our notion of who “we” (not quite real) “are” (not quite real), we become jealous and protective of certain aspects of our identity and we keep close watch to preserve them. We sometimes even violently throw away from us those things that threaten our self or identity. This is Dvesha, and this is why relationships end, and why wars start. And most of what is in between.
And Voila: Wheel of Karma: ready, set, roll. We are drawn to what our senses tell us is a good, and we do something to experience and respond to that good, and it generates a memory of a good, which spurs a new desire which gives rise to new action to experience the good. Just turn this sentence on its head and you get how aversion, or dvesha and abhinivesha work. These all set in motion the Wheel of Karma. Turned by the ego to preserve, protect, and decorate its notion of its self. and the memory of unpleasant things spurs us to avoid the same in the future, and so on. Even at the moment of death, our sense of self will be unavoidably stricken by the imminent loss of its cherished “I”, and because of the desire to preserve this existence will seek a new life, a re-incarnation, to generate new experiences of self. There is much complex explanation of just how this transfer of a soul to a new body occurs, that varies by school of philosophy and practice, but despite this all agree that it is the Wheel of Karma that keeps us reincarnating lifetime after lifetime, and it is the nature of our tendencies and actions that shapes our experience, and sets us on the course of this life and future ones as well.
The definition of a “good” Karmic action is either one that does not arise from afflictive thoughts, or that does not give rise to Kleshotic, or afflictive thoughts.
Just One More Note about God
We discussed this sutra earlier this year, and it’s worth drawing it out again to note that the definition of Ishvara, or God, is one who never was and never will be touched by klesha and karma.
1.24 kleśa –karma –vipākāśayair aparāmṛṣṭaḥ puruṣa –viśeṣa Īśvaraḥ
B: The Lord is a special soul. He is untouched by the obstacles [to the practice of yoga], karma, the fructification [of karma], and the subconscious predispositions.
I: God is the supreme being, totally free from conflicts, unaffected by actions and untouched by cause and effect.
H: Iśvara is a particular Puruṣa unaffected by affliction, deed, result of action or the latent impressions thereof.
God, we must also note, is not made of Prakriti or matter, but is purely Purusha, which is entirely different. Purusha can witness and even partake in the world of Prakriti (in the way Krishna embodies himself as the friend and charioteer for Arjuna during the Bhagavad Gita) and in fact some schools of philosophy consider that Prakriti is there for the “entertainment” of Purusha. But no matter, Purusha is NOT Prakriti. Therefore, it is not subject to the push and pull of the gunas and consequently has no citta vrttis and consequently no kleshas, and because there is none of this, there is no karma either.
God doesn’t do anything, so God creates no karma.
So let’s be clear: humans are made of Prakriti matter. We have always to reckon with the doings of Prakritic nature by means of our Prakritic nature. That is, we have some form of the kleshas at work in us, one way or another, and our training as Yogis is what can help us to gain a measure of control over those tendencies and actions, and apply, as Prashant Iyengar calls them, Anti-kleshotics through our yoga practice. Maybe one day we can gain enough control of our minds and our bodies that we may if we wish step off the Wheel of Karma entirely. This is another way of describing Kaivalya, or Liberation, the topic of the fourth chapter of the Yoga Sutra.
So remember, klesha is to be avoided by the yogi accomplished in his or her practice, but it is a normal part of existence for all the rest of us. The issue for us is always HOW we are to minimize the kleshotic influence in our thought and action, so our work is as clear of karmic residue as possible, and helping us move toward freedom.
This will lead us to the nuts and bolts of Yoga Sadhana (Yoga Practice), coming right up in the November Philosophy and Asana Series on Saturday Nov. 22.
And By the Way
Is there something actually bad about the ego? In the world of material things, it turns out you need a good and healthy sense of self, of “I”, in order to negotiate your way through this world of Prakriti. You can’t get food for dinner unless someone goes to prepare it. Or eat it. That would be you. There has to be something you identify as a you if you will do anything. But when it is time to examine the true nature of things, it becomes easy to see that the egoic self is largely a work of fiction that is being rewritten all the time.
The ego is like clothing for the self. There is nothing wrong with ego in the way there is nothing wrong with clothing. It keeps us comfortable, identifies us to others, and protects us from things. So when and why would you want to take your egoic clothing off?
The clothing of our selves is useful, but also a genuine burden: it labels us by its style and type, loads us with the weight of extra stuff we must carry and preserve all the time, and it limits our mobility in our own eyes and the eyes of others. Doing Yoga is practicing in order to take that clothing off. In Yoga you learn that you are not your clothing. And that knowledge is freeing both in the world of Prakriti and the world of the soul.
It is the same with all the Kleshas. All the Kleshas are is a set of ways of keeping that same set of clothing on all the time.
Yoga lets you walk around (when you determine the moment is right) in the birthday suit of your Self.