Feb 18, 2013

Sutras 1.12 - 1.15. Abhyasa and Vairagya. Two Fundamental Approaches in Yoga

I am writing this article on board the plane on my way to India where I shall visit Kumbh Mela. I am here without my favourite and probably unique library, yet it’s been already for three weeks that I’ve been nourishing the article about abhyasa and vairagya in my mind. So I shall rely on my memory now and double check the details upon my arrival home.

Patanjali has used the following 5 lines (1.12 to 1.16) to introduce and define the notions of abhyasa and vairagya that in his view come as methods of reaching the state of chitta-vritti-nirodha. This is directly stated in the line 1.12 that contains words the reader is already familiar with:

अभ्यासवैराग्याभ्यां तन्निरोधः ॥१२॥
1.12 abhyāsa-vairāgyābhyāṃ tan-nirodhaḥ 

tan is translated as these, and thus in consideration of the context of the previous lines that enlist the types of vritti the following translation variant may occur:

1.12 Their (of vrittis) nirodha is achieved through abhyasa and vairagya.

Therefore these categories might be of fundamental significance within the context of yoga practice. However as opposed to numerous other Sanskrit terms that have become naturalized in both Russian-speaking and English-speaking yoga – like yama, niyama, karma, dharana and even samskara, the terms abhyasa and vairagya have been almost forgotten and avoided. Somehow they are not used and not commented upon. The practice proves that this usually occurs due to lack of comprehension of the respective categories.

So let us start to study out the core meaning of these words. The majority of translators use to interpret these words in rather similar manner thus probably establishing the false illusion of their comprehension. The word abhyasa is translated as the exercise, drill, or repeated practice which is rather reasonable since it is based upon the word-root meaning “repeated action”. Probably the word drill meaning the activity associated with learning something by means of numerous repeating in this case shall come as a perfect match.

The translation field of the word vairagya is actually a bit wider though it is set around one and the same conceptual core. Vayu – wind, to dry; raga – the word that the reader already knows from the article devoted to kleshas that is translated as emotion, mood. In this way vairagya is translated as “drying up one’s emotions” that in classical interpretations is referred to as dispassionateness, detachment, non-attachment and even the exotic variant of emancipation (Fal’kov).

Thus everything seems to be clear: abhyasa and vairagya are the drill and detachment that are used for achieving nirodha. However such interpretation is not satisfactory. First, due to the fact that in terms of such translation variant the given line does not come perfect in scope of logic. A drill is a kind of activity, action, while detachment or dispassionateness are the states of one’s mind. The person of proper thinking, let alone the logics master, obviously would have not put two categories that are out of relation into one listing line, otherwise he would be more like the Mad Hatter wondering why the raven was like a writing desk. Here we should say that most of those who were studying Yoga Sutra might have felt this inadequacy. For instance, Rigin tried to avoid it by translating abhyāsa-vairāgyābhyāṃ not in two categories, but as a single one – “the practice of detachment”

1.12 Their restriction (of these 5 types of Vritti) is achieved through the practice of detachment (Vairagya). (transl. of Rigin)

Such variant of translating this line lifts the inner logical contradiction and even makes it fairly comprehensible and useable within the context of one’s practice, however I cannot but disagree here due to one simple reason: in lines 1.13 and 1.15 Patanjali gives independent definitions to each of these terms. So the problem does remain. It was also seen by Swami Satyananda Saraswati who probably tried to circumvent it since in his commentary to YS he has translated the word abhyasa yet refrained from translating vairagya thus concealing the logical discrepancy from the reader who does not delve into every detail.

There is also another problem – in this case, the one relating to sense. The words drill and detachment make a poor match. For instance, if we asked a modern instructor about the things required for successful result he would name the constant drilling and desire for achieving the result. While the drill and absence of emotions would be a bad duo. This was probably noticed by Vivekananda who has translated the line 1.14 that comments upon the main point of the drill in the following manner:

1.12 Its (of the drill) ground becomes firm by long, constant efforts with great love [for the end to be attained]. (transl. By Vivekananda).

The “great love for the end to be attained” obviously and undoubtedly facilitates achieving of any set aim; however this translation for sure comes in contradiction with the idea of translating vairagya and detachment or lack of emotions. I even tend to believe that Vivekananda himself has purposefully dramatized his own translation (since the text does not contain a word about the “great” love) in order to highlight this idea, for he understood that something was wrong with this.

If we yet duck and cover and pay no attention to the word vairagya, the line will appear to contain no information at all. It is clear that in order to achieve any result one should work hard, and it was just the same way clear two thousand years ago, so there was no need to explain this in a separate line.

So all we have to do is study out on our own. As usual, in order to do this let us try to understand not only what Patanjali has written but also why and what for he could have done it this very way.

First of all, keeping in mind Patanjali’s habit of giving his own definitions to all the terms he uses within the text, let us give an independent translation of the respective lines:

तत्र स्थितौ यत्नोऽभ्यासः ॥१३॥
1.13 tatra sthitau yatno'bhyāsaḥ 

tatra – here;
sthitau – to be stable, settled, preserved, standing firm;
yatna - effort;
abhyāsaḥ  - abhyasa.

Let us draw the translation variant:

1.13 Here (meaning, in the text) abhyasa is the effort of being stable [1].

So Patanjali has actually provided for a comprehensive explanation of the term. Some translators [into Russian – translator’s note], like Ostrovskaya and Rudoy, in order to intensify comprehension of the line use here the word chitta (it being ‘consciousness, mind’ in terms of Ostrovskaya and Rudoy’ understanding) in addition to stability. Vivekananda, on the contrary, expands the meaning of the word stability and substitutes it by contextual “keeping the Vritti perfectly restrained”. Despite the differences between them, the two translation variants actually refer to one and the same and specify the understanding, however I believe it is unnecessary to add any words since, for instance, in Russian language the term “stability” in relation to a person is anyway associated with his mental stability, his emotional stability and imperturbability.

If we correlate this statement with our common experience we shall obtain the simplest and the most obvious variant of yoga practice that comes down to conation of keeping one’s states under control. Here we should say that this is a quite common approach to psychological practice that we come across in the techniques applied by the Stoics and Cynics, in the practices of vows, any trainings performed with all one’s might, in the behavioral trainings in the vein of Behaviourism, in Schultz's autogenic training and hundreds of other systems.

स तु दीर्धकालनैरन्तर्यसत्कारासेवितो दृढभूमिः ॥१४॥
1.14 sa tu dīrdha-kāla-nairantarya-satkārāsevito dṛḍha-bhūmiḥ 

sa – this; 
tu - but;
dīrdha –longstanding;
kāla - time;
nairantarya – continuously, uninterruptedly;
satkārāsevito – kind treatment, reverence, attention that we shall generalize with the word “carefulness” (careful observance);
satkārāsevito – well performed;
dṛḍha – solid, rigid;
bhūmiḥ –well-grounded.

Let us draw the translation:

1.14 This state (of stability) becomes habitual subjected to continuous, uninterrupted, careful practice.

As you can see there is nothing of Vivekananda’s “great love” here, and there is no need for it. I have also took the liberty of loose translation having substituted the solid state with the habitual one since it is more in accord with the core point of the description. Also I have linked the pronoun sa–this that the majority of translators have referred to the term under consideration – abhyasa - with the main category referred to in the previous line – the stability. In general the obtained translation comes as a reasonable one and it does not contain any inner discrepancies.

दृष्टानुश्रविकविषयवितृष्णस्य वशीकारसंज्ञा वैराग्यम् ॥१५॥
1.15 dṛṣṭānuśravika-viṣaya-vitṛṣṇasya vaśīkāra-saṃjñā vairāgyam

dṛṣṭa - seen;
аnuśravika - heard;
viṣaya - object;
vi-tṛṣṇa-sya – without keen desire (the word derives from the “favourite” category of Buddhists – ‘tṛṣṇa’ – that stands for attachment or keen desire), however considering the fact that it is this very word that comes as the key in understanding the core essence of vairagya we shall so far remain unsatisfied with this translation);
vaśīkāra - mastery;
saṃjñā – knowledge, sign, emblem, comprehension;
vairāgyam – vairagya.

Now let us come back to the word vitṛṣṇasya. What is complicated with translation of this word is that for this category there exist a fairly wide range of translation variants, starting from “keen desire of possession”, “craving for”, “thirst for” and up to “attachment” and “emotion”. These words may be keen and close for a man of letter or a linguist yet the psychologist, let alone the person who studies psycho-practices, feels there is a huge gap between them. It is the same case as it was with understating the category of nirodha – different translations shall entail completely different practice. What is even more complicated is that being actively present in Buddhism the word tṛṣṇa already has the established tradition of its translating. Though in terms of translating the texts related to yoga it is different from that of Buddhist. As it often happens in scope of translating religious texts the interpreter on the one hand is subject to their charms and on the other hands starts to endow the spiritual terms used in the text with his own spiritual experience. This translation adequacy and accuracy cannot be verified out of practice – see the art. “Lost in translation”. And thus the tapas turns into asceticism, ishvarapranidhana becomes the God-seeking and so on. To my mind something of the kind has happened to the category under our consideration. Most of Buddhist texts were translated in Victorian era by protestant scientists that have introduced into understanding of Buddhism a Victorian idea about the need of having no emotions. And from there this concept was transferred to yoga.

In consideration of the above-said and having the good sense in mind we shall thus completely reject understanding of vairagya as the technique of eliminating one’s emotions and desires. Moreover, the universal experience has already proved the total hopelessness of such practice, just like it is impossible to eliminate the process of sweating or digestion. Any attempt of emotions’ “elimination” shall only entail their repression into subconscious mind. The descriptions of Christian saints’ “allurements” come as a perfect example here. Also the lives of both ancient rishis as well as the Masters and Teachers of yoga of today describe them as men of emotions, even the expressive ones, and they don’t seem to be “dried up”. But in any case all meanings of the word trishna are related to the emotional sphere.

Further, the particle vi- at the beginning of the word either means the negation of something (of that trishna that is still not clear to us), overcoming it, or the differentiation of vi- (dis- / un-). Actually, the word we are looking for can be defined as the “dis-trishning”. The latter one may come as a hint since it reminds of an actual group of psycho-practices that are related to dis-engagement from one’s emotional states. The main point of these practices it that the person experiencing different states (in this case it makes no difference whether it is “desire”, “craving for” or something else) simply contemplates them in himself without getting involved, or uses some other method to disengage from them. This type of practices includes the Tibetan Mahamudra, the Tilopa’s meditation, all techniques used in body-oriented psychotherapy and reframing of NLP followers, the method of systematic desensitization and hundreds of other completely operational techniques used in various systems of psychological practices – from ancient ones to those of our days.

This is a non-standard translation but it does not contradict the text and brings home the logic of presentation.

1.15 The disengagement from emotions [related to] the seen and heard objects is the sign of mastery in vairagya.

Thus here comes eventual understanding of the text logic, that is, of why Patanjali has put together the two categories under our consideration. 

In fact, the Yoga Sutras author has pointed out the two possible methods of working with one’s psyche that in this or that form have been used in all later systems of psycho-practices – the method of taking control over one’s emotional states and the method of disengagement from them.

The article is to be continued…

[1] I shall hereinafter use the bold italics to give my variant of translation while the italics only shall stand for the rest of translations.

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