Notes from Philosophy and Asana: Klesha and Karma

Klesha and Karma:  Yoga and Philosophy October 18 2014

Klesha (the causes of suffering)
Karma (the results of action)

By the way, you can make the reading of this post shorter by 1) only taking one translation of each sutra, instead of the three or five I offer; 2) or skipping them altogether and just reading my synopsis and notes.  However, anyone really interested in the philosophy would do well to actually read the sutra instead of relying on my "translation" and my thoughts alone.  And the truly interested will take up and read for yourself at least one authoritative translation and commentary.  The ones used and quoted here are translations and commentaries by BKS Iyengar, Edwin Bryant, Swami Hariharananda Aranya, Rama Prasada, and Stephen Phillips, including both Hariharananda's and Rama Prasada's translation and commentary on Vyasa's work.)

 Klesha and Karma are closely related to each other in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. The part that we are reading about today 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.

 First, 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...

These are simple definitions, but they give context for the use of the term.  But the two words have also acquired philosophical significance.  Let's explore that.  The concept of karma defined above is that on the face of it, any action or any doing is karma.  The deeper significance is that 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 Gunas, the energetic principles of rajas or activity/movement, 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.  Purusha does not do anything.

 A Little More Background.

Now let’s go to the beginning of the Sutra, way back at the first Philosophy Soup Kitchen.  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. It means citta vrtti nirodhah is the stopping of the interaction of the gunas in the mind.

We have our first mention of the notion of Klesha in YS 1.5

1.5       vttaya pañcatayya kliṣṭākliṣṭāḥ
translation:  There are five kinds of changing states of the mind, and they are either detrimental or nondetrimental [to the practice of yoga].
Iyengar transl.:  The movements of consciousness are fivefold.  They may be cognizable or non-cognizable, painful or non-painful.
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.
Rama Prasada transl:  The modifications are five-fold, painful and not-painful.
Phillips transl. :  Fluctuations are of five types, and are detrimental or non-detrimental (to the practices of yoga)

And in Vyasa’s earliest authoritative commentary that precedes all these others, 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 Sutras we will focus on 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.

By practicing yoga all the way through to the last limb, Samadhi, you can reduce the Kleshas.  It’s a long row to hoe and you already know that, but yoga practice can do the job.  Yoga, or something very like it from any of a number of different traditions, is the only way to reduce the Kleshas.  

What Exactly are these Kleshas?

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 is born the second, from the second come the third and fourth, and then the fifth as its own special, culminating category.  Here is the explanation of all five:

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-vicchinnodārānām
 Iyengar:  Lack of true knowledge is the source of all pains and sorrows whether dormant, attenuated, interrupted or fully active.
BryantIgnorance is the breeding ground of the other klesas, whether they are in a dormant, weak, intermittent, or fully activated state.
HariharanandaAvidyā is the breeding ground for the others whether they be dormant, attenuated, interrupted or active.

 Here is a significant insight:  Vyasa (our original, "benchmark" commentator on Patanjali) adds 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 precisely that 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.  They just interact with other bits of Prakriti to create visual imagery and categorization of it, but it is the Purusha in us who is the true Seer of all that Prakriti does.  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 perception and concept, 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 in the same way moths are drawn to light, 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. 

Last Part, if you haven't figured it out:  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 sometimes why relationships begin and always why they end, and also why wars start. 

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 around and you get how aversion (dvesha), and fear of death (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 to steer away from that which is harmful to its notion of its self. Memory and anticipation spur us forward. 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 we will seek a new life, a re-incarnation, to generate new experiences of self.  There are many complex explanations 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.  See the sutras explaining Kriya Yoga for more information, and really, read all of the second chapter of the YS to learn more.

 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.
R:  Iswara is a distinct Purusa, untouched by the vehicles of affliction, action and fruition.
P: By “Lord” is meant a particular conscious being [purusa] who [unlike us] is untouched by obstacles to enlightenment or by the stores of ripening karma [habits or moral debts acquired through action]. 

God, we must also note, is not made of Prakriti or matter, but is purely Purusha, which is entirely different.  Purusha does not change, has no vrttis, and does not do anything.  Purusha can witness and even embody itself 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 detachment and 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 helps 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.

Posted on October 19, 2014 .