Pancha Klesha - The Five Hindrances

The Basic Mechanism Of Human Suffering According To Patanjali's Yoga Sutras

Why We Suffer: The Haiku Version

Chapter two, verse three of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, in Sanskrit reads:

avidyā-asmitā-rāga-dveṣa-abhiniveśaḥ kleśāḥ

This is one of the most brief (six words, seventeen syllables!) and yet profoundly complete descriptions of the cause of human suffering ever to be penned -- or quilled or carved or painted or scratched, or whatever was the mode of recording during the life of its illustrious author, the Indian sage Patanjali.

We’ll begin unpacking this condensed cornucopia of wisdom by defining, in English, its six Sanskrit words. I’ve drawn these definitions from a variety of sources, to give you a sense of the latitude of interpretation.

avidyā = ignorance; confusion; lack of insight.

asmitā = self-centeredness; identification with the human body and that which is mutable in human beings; the belief/feeling that ‘I-am-this’ (in relation to objects/phenomena).

rāga = desire; attraction; wish; belief that outer circumstances are responsible for happiness; mental excitement and passionate emotional agitation due to desires for certain things.

dveṣa = revulsion; aversion; belief that outer circumstances are responsible for unhappiness; mental excitement and passionate emotional agitation due to aversions to certain things.

abhiniveśaḥ = deep seated anxiety; fear of death (i.e. fear of yoga!); will to live; tenacious determination to achieve this purpose (of obtaining certain things/circumstances and avoiding others).

kleśaḥ = the burdens on the spiritual path; the cause of psychological suffering.

The Five Kleshas In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

What follows is Swami Savitripriya’s translation of this verse -- excerpted from Psychology of Mystical Awakening: Patanjali Yoga Sutras -- and the six verses following it, which articulate in a bit more detail each of the five hindrances.

Of the many available English translations of the Yoga Sutras, this remains my favorite -- though I encourage you to have a look at several, to get a sense of the wide range of interpretations, and then choose one or two with which you resonate.


Verse Three: The Five Hindrances

The five causes of suffering are linked together in a cause and effect sequence:

The basis of suffering is ignorance. To be ignorant is to be oblivious of the origin and composition of the universe, and of the inner presence of the Eternal, Blissful, and Conscious True-Self. This leads to the belief:

’I am my body, emotions, mind, and intellect', which results in;

A constant state of mental, emotional, and physical agitation due to a desire to obtain pleasure and happiness through external objects which stimulate the senses and bring the physical and emotional pleasure, which results in;

A state of constant mental, emotional, and physical agitation due to an aversion and fear that objects or events will not fulfill one's desires, and thus cause one to feel unhappy, which results in;

A tenacious determination to continue trying to obtain an unbroken experience of physical pleasure and emotional happiness through obtaining the objects of sensory pleasure which one desires, and avoiding those which one fears, even though experience proves that lasting pleasure and happiness is not experienced through a life focused on fulfilling the unending desires of the senses.

Verse Four: Avidyā

Ignorance of the fact that the Eternal Peace, Love, and Happiness that one is seeking outside is already within one's own True-Self, and instead believing that one is the mortal body, mind, and personality, creates the conditions in the mind-field for the seeds of the other four causes of suffering to grow. Although ignorance, and the resulting beliefs, are present in all minds which have not yet become purified during the fourth stage of Samadhi, the control they have over the mind and emotions varies according to their intensity. For example, ignorant beliefs and their results are:

Exceedingly strong and active in the average person who does not understand, or care to believe, that he or she is not the mind, emotions or body; that his or her view of the third dimensional universe is less than accurate; and thus does nothing to counteract the causes of suffering;

Are becoming reduced in a person who is actively engaged in the practices of this psychology and is cultivating the Three Self-Strengthening Supports;

Have become weak in a person who is in an advanced stage of the practice, and who can now easily intercept them during their infrequent appearance; and

Have become dormant in a person who has reduced them to a seed state.

Continued On Page Two

Verse Five: Four Absurd Beliefs

There are four absurd  beliefs that accompany the state of ignorance:

The belief that people and objects, all of which are composed of neutrons, protons, and electrons, and which are in a constant state of transformation and change, will remain the same and will not change or disappear;

The belief that the body, which is only a machine which produces waste products; and the mind, which ordinarily contains mostly misconceptions, are pure;

The belief that the high degree of emotional pain and suffering which most people experience throughout life is the state of happiness; and

The belief that the body is humankind's spiritual essence and thus should be worshiped, when actually the body, and the impressions in the mind which constitute the personality, are only inert objects composed or neutrons, protons, and electrons.

Verse Six: Asmitā

The first cause of ignorance, the belief, ‘this body and mind is who I am', occurs when the conscious seer projects its power down into its unconscious body and mind, and then believes that these two things -- consciousness, and the body/mind -- are essentially the same, and thus that mind is conscious.

Verse Seven: Rāga

This leads to the desire to obtain physical and emotional pleasure through external sensory objects, in order to experience pleasure and happiness, which leads to highly charged mental and emotional states of suffering rather than to the happiness one desires.

Verse Eight: Dveṣa

This leads to aversions and fear that particular persons, objects, or events might think, say or do something that might cause you to feel the dreaded state of unhappiness, which, of course, produces the feared result.

Verse Nine: Abhiniveśaḥ

This leads to a tenacious determination to, at all costs, continue repeating the same patterns of attempting to feel continual pleasure and happiness through having one's immature deficiency demands fulfilled through external sensory objects composed of neutrons, protons, and electrons. This driving desire for pleasure is deeply rooted in the creatures of the earth, and arises from remembered experiences connected with the primitive drives that exist in the lower forms of life through which one has evolved, and which one remember and still acts upon. This consuming desire for pleasure flows with a strong current of its own, causing one to often times become engaged in degrading actions when actually one is seeking the lost Bliss and Love which lies hidden within one's own heart.

Samkhya & Advaita Vedanta

One thing worth mentioning, at this point, is that Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are rooted in the Samkhya philosophical system -- a system which maintains a strong dualism between purusha (the principle of awareness, that which is sentient) and prakriti (the insentient manifest/objective world, composed of various combinations of the three gunas, viz. tamas, rajas and sattva). The process of liberation, as articulated within this system, is fundamentally one of discrimination between what is real/sentient and what is unreal/insentient, and becoming established in ones true identity as the former as opposed to the latter.

Since the purusha/prakriti dualism remains, one’s True Conscious Self and the World of Nature (to use Swami Savitripriya’s language) remain forever distinct. This tends to give rise to a dismissive if not downright derogatory evaluation of the human body (as belonging to prakriti). So for instance, Swami Savitripriya in one verse describes the body as “only a machine which produces waste products,” and in another the body and mind as “inert objects composed or neutrons, protons, and electrons.”

And it is at this point that the Samkhya system parts ways with, say, a Taoist vision of the body as being as expression of the Tao -- a view much more in accord with Advaita Vedanta.

Or perhaps it is not so much a “parting of ways” as it is a taking it one step further. The wisdom contained within Yoga Sutras is a powerful tool for facilitating -- with its neti-neti via-negativa approach -- the movement from “mountains are mountains, and rivers are rivers,” to “mountains are not-mountains, and rivers are not-rivers.”

Because of its commitment to the purusha/prakriti dualism, however, it leaves unexplored what for an Advaita Vedanta or Taoist approach would be the next step, namely of seeing the Clear Light nature of all apparent phenomena, i.e. of realizing that manifest phenomena, the ten-thousand-things, are in their essence none other than Tao, the Divine. Or, bringing it back again to Swami Savitripriya’s language: the “neutrons, protons and electrons” which comprise the subatomic structure of the manifest world are not, in fact, “inert” -- but rather are continuously dancing, as they emerge out of and dissolve back into their Source, which is none other than our True Nature.

Mountains are once again mountains, and river are once again rivers -- but are now known/perceived in their True Nature.

Of Related Interest

* Tao & Dongshan’s Five Ranks
* Taoism & Tantra: Flow & Continuity In Taoist Practice
* Guide Review: David Loy’s Nonduality