Patanjali’s Psychology and the Function of the Mind

patanjali_10_optBy Bhakti Promode Puri Goswami

The great sage Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutra, has written that the meaning of “yoga” is to stop the activities of the mind, yogas citta-vrtti-nirodhauh (1.2). It is impossible to achieve yoga unless one first controls the activities of the mind. Yoga psychology describes five basic states of mind—ksipta (disturbed), mudha (bewildered), viksipta (distracted), ekagra (concentrated), and niruddha (controlled).

When the mind is unsteady and flickering, it is said to be disturbed (ksipta). When one desires things other than Krishna, the mind finds it impossible to remain fixed exclusively on him. Rather, it flutters from one subject to another, wishing first for some sense object and then for another. In this way it remains unsteady.

The mind may be confused about what to do or not to do, and as a result one is overcome with desire, anger, or other manifestations of the mode of passion; or sleep, drowsiness, laziness, or other manifestations of the mode of ignorance. This is called the bewildered state of the mind.

The state of being disturbed (ksiptavastha) described above, and the distracted state (viksipta) are quite similar in many respects. However, the difference between them is that from time to time in the viksipta state there are moments of calm and steadiness even within the overall picture of inability to concentrate.

When the mind becomes fixed on some external or internal object, and thus becomes as steady as a flame in a windless room; when it has overcome the modes of ignorance and passion and is situated in goodness, it develops the power of single-minded concentration, which is called “ekagrata“.

In the stage of concentration, ekagrata, the mind is still dependent on something external to itself, but in the fully controlled state (niruddha), there is no longer dependency. The mind regains its causal nature and remains inactive as though it had achieved its purpose and had no need of further action. Like a burnt thread, it shows the lines of its previous characteristics, but is not negatively affected by them. In this controlled state, the self is fixed in its true nature. At other times, the self identifies with the activities of the mind and thus takes on various identities.

Devotional scriptures tell us that the jiva’s eternal nature, as Krishna’s marginal energy, is to be the servant of the God. As one of God’s energies, the jivas are simultaneously one and different from him. When situated in this natural position, the mind has no function other than to seek out Krishna. The living entity is then constantly engaged in the culture of Krishna consciousness and the mind then acts as his friend.

In his teachings to Maitreya, Yajnavalkya describes four practices which lead to control of the mind: “The atman is to be seen, to be listened to, to be reflected on, and to be contemplated.”1

From this statement it is understood that the first duty of the mind is to seek out the supreme self. One should therefore use the mind to seek out Vasudeva, the mind’s own titulary deity, and never other sense objects. As instructed to Maitreya, one should look at and listen to things related to God, then reflect on and contemplate those things, as well as Krishna himself. This is the actual purpose of mental functions; otherwise, the mind becomes the principal enemy of the soul.

If one wishes to know the supreme truth, it is absolutely essential that one take shelter of a guru and hear from him or her. The spiritual master is non-different from the supreme truth—a manifest expansion, or prakasa-vigraha, of that truth. Thus he can show the truth—Sri Krishna’s lotus feet—to his surrendered disciple. He shows the disciple the means by which the vision of God can be attained. Therefore one should first prostrate themselves before the guru and then submissively ask about the nature of the self, the nature of God, the goal of life and the means of attaining it, and the nature of maya, or the forces which oppose the attaining of spiritual understanding.

The disciple should approach the spiritual master in a spirit of service. It is imperative that the disciple listen submissively to the directions given by the spiritual master, then, by reflection, follow up such hearing. The word manana means reflection, or assiduous meditation on the subject matter that has been heard from the spiritual master. It also means determination, or the power to determine the nature of things. Vijnana Bhiksu writes in his works on Sankhya philosophy that the self should be heard in accordance with the words of the revealed literature, and should be reflected on according to their proofs and arguments, srotavyah sruti-vakyebhyo mantavyas copapattibhih. By this process, one comes to determine the true meaning of the words registered in the scriptures.

The Gayatri-tantra states:

mananat papatas trati mananat svargam asnute
mananat moksam apnoti caturvargamayo bhavet
((1.4))

“One is delivered from sin through reflection. One enjoys heaven through reflection. One attains liberation and all the goals of human life through reflection.”

A pure devotee will naturally engage in the kind of reflection that results in pure devotional service. The importance of reflecting on what one has heard is specifically connected with the importance of listening to the Bhagavata. Therefore the first step in controlling the mind is to listen to the Bhagavatam with attentiveness, care, concentration, patience, and strong faith in the guru. If there is inattention and carelessness, the true fruit of hearing will not be achieved.

  1. atma va are drastavyah srotavyo mantavyo nididhyasitavyahBrhad-aranyaka Upanishad, 4.5.6 []


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9 Responses to Patanjali’s Psychology and the Function of the Mind

  1. It seems that since the advent of Srila Prabhupada, at least in the example he showed by how he conducted his ISKCON mission, that the ancient process of each and every disciple needing to attain direct personal service of the Guru and acquiring spiritual knowledge by hearing directly has been outdated with the modern information technologies of recordings and writings that allow for students in distant places to get the same benefit of hearing directly from the Acharya.

    I personally see very little difference between formally initiated devotees and uninitiated devotees who follow all the spiritual practices and disciplines.

    Srila Prabhupada explained that Bhakti is a science of techniques of hearing, chanting etc. and that anyone who accepts these practices can advance in Krishna consciousness.
    Immediate proximity to the Guru has been proven in ISKCON and other Gaudiya missions as not being any magic formula that makes such personal assistants as superior to devotees who have not gone through a formal initiation process.

    There is a certain amount of cultural baggage that comes along with the Gaudiya Vaishnavism that is not absolutely fundamental to advancement in Krishna consciousness.
    It seems that many devotees get caught up in the dress, the rituals and the society of devotees without being able to distinguish between society consciousness and Krishna consciousness.

    In fact, the sectarian potential of Gaudiya Vaishnavism seems to be very great even within a cult that is very much a sub-culture unto itself within the greater secular societies.

    How it is that the movement of Mahaprabhu has broken up into so many various sects is quite amazing for a movement that has been inaugurated by Sri Caitanya.
    Somehow, we can’t help but believe that all this sectarianism in the Krishna consciousness movement is not pleasing to Mahaprabhu.

    I hear an old school voice speaking in this article.
    As much as I love and respect these old school Vaishnavas, I can’t help but see that their time has past and a new age and a new formula has been ushered in by Srila Prabhupada.

    • I don’t see the connection between your comments and the main topic of the article. Firstly it was about stilling the mind and approaching the spiritual master is cited as the only means to accomplish that. In fact Puri maharaja is very liberal here citing people from different schools of thoughts like Patanjali. And he encourages reflecting on the teaching of spiritual master in a submissive spirit, not blind following and fanaticism which is a trademark of many current devotees in the new school.
      The disciple should approach the spiritual master in a spirit of service. It is imperative that the disciple listen submissively to the directions given by the spiritual master, then, by reflection, follow up such hearing. The word manana means reflection, or assiduous meditation on the subject matter that has been heard from the spiritual master.

      • Considering that this is in the heart of the article, I belief that my response definitely related to material in the article.
        Otherwise, I have never noticed that the Gaudiyas are particularly concerned with the teachings of Patanjali.

        If one wishes to know the supreme truth, it is absolutely essential that one take shelter of a guru and hear from him or her. The spiritual master is non-different from the supreme truth—a manifest expansion, or prakasa-vigraha, of that truth. Thus he can show the truth—Sri Krishna’s lotus feet—to his surrendered disciple. He shows the disciple the means by which the vision of God can be attained. Therefore one should first prostrate themselves before the guru and then submissively ask about the nature of the self, the nature of God, the goal of life and the means of attaining it, and the nature of maya, or the forces which oppose the attaining of spiritual understanding.

        • Perhaps it is working for you. For a living entity who is a worm in stool like myself, a guru is required. For those who are actually perfectly following SP like yourself, there is no need for guru.

  2. Srila Prabhupada explained that Bhakti is a science of techniques of hearing, chanting etc. and that anyone who accepts these practices can advance in Krishna consciousness.
    Immediate proximity to the Guru has been proven in ISKCON and other Gaudiya missions as not being any magic formula that makes such personal assistants as superior to devotees who have not gone through a formal initiation process.

    It is true that anyone can advance by practicing these techniques, but further advancement requires a relationship with a guru. Krsna tells us in the Bhagavad-gita 4.34 “Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized souls can impart knowledge unto you because they have seen the truth.” Notice that the formula Krsna gives is in two parts: 1. Inquire so as to gain knowledge and insight, and 2. Render service. In a practical sense, the guru is able to direct the disciple according to time, circumstance, the disciple’s personality, situation, and level of advancement. The guru also teaches us directly about humility and surrender, giving us a tangible person to serve with specific requests. I know that being a pre-neophyte myself, this is very helpful for my advancement.

    Rupa Goswami in Bhakti Rasmita Sindhu also emphasizes the importance of a personal guru:

    atha angani-gurupadasrayas tasmat krsna-diksadi-siksanamvisrambhena guroh seva sadhu-vartmanuvartanam

    “The following are indispensable parts of sadhana-bhakti: (1) taking shelter of the lotus feet of the guru, (2) receiving initiation and training from the guru, (3) serving the guru with affectionate zeal, and (4) following in the footsteps of the great devotees.” (BRS 2.74)
    By serving the guru, we serve Krsna. Krsna wants to serve his devotees, but his devotees won’t allow it. We fulfill Krsna’s desire by serving the guru for him.

    In “Sri Guru and His Grace” Swami B.R. Sridhar says, “The scriptures say we must read the scripture under the guidance of a proper professor, a Vaisnava guru.” So even though the scriptures are there and there are commentaries on some of them, we require a present spiritual master to help when we don’t understand or when we come across a scripture that does not have a commentary in our lineage. Because we are not pure bhaktas, we are prone to misinterpret even the commentaries without the guidance of advanced devotees.

    In Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakur’s Gurvastakam says:
    “I bow down to the lotus feet of Sri gurudeva. By his
    grace, we achieve the grace of Krishna; without his
    grace, we are lost. Therefore, we should always meditate
    on Sri gurudeva, and pray for his mercy.”
    This shows that it is not just guidance but grace that we get from our guru. Our guru is our connection to Krsna. Without this connection, we may have a perfect understanding of how bhakti is supposed to work, but we cannot approach Krsna. We need our guru’s recommendation to be able to enter into the lila.

    These are just some of the reasons why it is important to have a relationship with a guru beyond books and internet.

  3. Otherwise, I have never noticed that the Gaudiyas are particularly concerned with the teachings of Patanjali.

    As a complete system of thought, i.e., Pantajala yoga is a distinct darsana among the six major schools of Indian classical thought, this is true. But Puri Maharaja is pointing out that the basis of any yogic practice is dealing with controlling the mind, and this is so whether one practices astanga yoga or bhakti. The definition of yoga given by Patanjali and cited here–cessation of mental vrttis–is something that we cannot avoid, and thus Puri Maharaja uses this definition to expand upon. Also, the states of mind he outlines are universal and need to be understood by sadhakas of any path if they are serious about attaining yoga. It is in that sense that Patanjali has perhaps something to say to Mahaprabhu’s followers, even if only as a reference and/or another angle to view the mental system from.

  4. Bhakti Promode Puri Goswami Maharaj was a prodigious scholar. His knowledge of shastra was vast, specialized, exacting and intentful.

    Indeed, he lived in a different era, a different socio-historical context. When reading his articles over sixty years, one begins to understand things from a different light, and the contexts from which he spoke and the audiences he wrote for were different from ours… indeed. His life was unique, spotless you might say, and humbling to witness.

    One never loses sight of his devotion to his guru. For several years he was in intimate contact with Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur. He heard from his guru extensively, remained close to his lotus feet. In later years, you could not be in his presence without noticing this devotion, and you learned something very deep from it.

    On a cursory level, if one is familiar with yoga-shastra and is aware of the historical figure of Yajnavalkya, and the flavor of the texts penned by these authors — their ideas are treated in a way that brings light to the process of devotion, and devotion for those interested in yoga. Even Vijnana Bhiksu, we know his polemic stance, still, the thread is maintained eloquently, actually. Sweet and fun in a way…

    The article frames a fundamental encounter in spiritual life… and in the discussion of manana, one realizes the type of reflection that is spoken of, how it was born… that the heart was touched. And then we can have something to sit and be quiet about – yogas chittah vrittih nirodhah/tad drastuh svarupe’ avasthanam.

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