The following is a lightly edited version of an email dialogue between our sūtra group facilitator and one of the group participants (Erez) after the Sūtra Discussion Group meeting on 20 October 2013.
1. If the vṛtti is considered bad, then what about pramāṇa? Isn’t that a vṛtti too?
Vṛtti: Both terms, bad and good, are relative in the sense that bad has a meaning only with reference to its antipode good, both being value judgments. Patañjali does not place a value judgment on any vṛtti anywhere in his sūtras. His idea is that any vṛtti—any thought, be it emotion, cognition, experience, memory, or ego (I-notion)—is within the realm of Prakṛti (matter), and that you are the Puruṣa enshrined in the Prakṛti. However, you may take yourself to be the citta (mind stuff) and thus experience samsāra, which is typified by sufferings and limitations.
Patañjali has the goal of making you see that you are the Puruṣa, who is inherently free from Prakṛti. The means of seeing this “already existing” truth is to consciously and methodically disengage yourself from what appears to be the shackles of Prakṛti. Note that Prakṛti comprises not only the physical body but also the mind stuff, the latter being a subtle form of Prakṛti (that is, it is not tangible like the physical body). Although no one takes oneself to be one’s body, when it comes to the mind, it is a totally different issue! The way to disassociate yourself from Prakrti, be it gross matter or subtle matter, is through ashtanga yoga.
Starting with the gross body (the physical body), you perform āsanas (coupled with subtle, coordinated breathing) in order to free yourself from the limitations of the body: aches, pains, and other exacerbating distractions. Then you perform prāṇāyāma, and so on through all eight limbs. Thus, the nirodha does not imply that vṛtti is good or bad, but simply that restraining vṛtti is a method by which to disengage yourself from the thralldom of Prakṛti.
One might ask, “Is this the only way?” The sage himself makes very clear at several points in his sūtras that this is not so, that freedom from Prakrti can be accomplished by centering your mind in Isvara, (Yogasūtra 1.23) for example. In addition, he also mentions later (Yogasūtra 4.1) about birth, drugs, chants, penance being instrumental in gaining yogic accomplishments. And, he mentions ignorance as the first of the five obstructions in achieving nirodha ((Yogasūtra 2.3). From these, one can understand what contemporaneously is called bhakti-yoga, Jnana-yoga, karma-yoga, etc, being extension of his ideas.
Now to the word pramāṇa. Many words in the sūtras are not defined since they are well known in spiritual traditions in India. It is the role of the commentators to define these words. The word pramāṇa means “the means of knowledge.” By using the pramāṇa (Patañjali’s sūtras), you gain both pramā (knowledge of kaivalya, or freedom) and the prameya (the object of knowledge). The knowledge that you acquire by exercising the pramāṇa is also a cittavṛtti.
For example, a French cookbook is a pramāṇa that gives you a specific pramā (knowledge of how to prepare French cuisine). But after you possess this knowledge, you must engage in an action—eating what you have prepared—in order to truly experience French food. This is the basic nature of knowledge and experience. It is thus obvious that even by clearly understanding kaivalya—that is, by gaining this pramā—one does not achieve kaivalya.
2. It is also interesting to learn that pramāṇa is a means, while pramā (the knowledge) is a cittavṛtti. The knowledge (pramā) can be helpful as a direction to get you somewhere, but may hinder the experience once you get there.
Knowledge (pramā) and experience (anubhava): In the cooking analogy I cited earlier, the imaginary cookbook is the pramāṇa by which you learn French cooking. It may list ingredients, note where to get them, describe how to prepare a typical French meal, and so on. Together, these pieces of information form the object of knowledge (prameya), and you, the knower, acquire the cittavṛtti of cognition of French cooking, the pramā. The experience (the tasting of the French cuisine you prepared) follows the pramā you gained, but, as you can see, the experience does not negate, belittle, or make irrelevant the pramāṇa, nor does the pramā interfere with your experience.
Let us take another example. When you work on an āsana, based on the pramāṇṇa of the teacher’s instructions, you gain the pramā as a cittavṛtti, which you use to keep refining the āsana. When you perfect the pose, you get an experience, another cittavṛtti, of joy. Does this joy experience interfere with your knowledge?
The experience-vs-knowledge debate—in which one side belittles the other—is eons old and will never end, since opinionated arguments cannot end! We, as seekers, are not debaters. Instead, we try to perceive where each experience complements each knowledge, and vice versa, ultimately coming to understand that they neither contradict nor exclude each other.
3. Patañjali classifies vṛttis as painful and painless, and I wonder for what purpose. Maybe to emphasize neutrality. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts about it.
Painful and painless vṛttis: I assume you are referring to the Sanskrit words kliṣṭa and akliṣṭa in Patañjali’s fifth sūtra of the first section. He often introduces highly technical words, then explains them in subsequent sūtra-s. (That said, the meanings of even very common words like citta are often quite different from our popular understandings. This is so since we are not exposed to the backdrop of the Yoga Sūtras’ underpinnings.)
I am sure we will encounter the meaning of afflicted and non-afflicted vṛttis, perhaps in our third or fourth monthly session. Right now, however, we are still exploring the second sūtra. As you understand, “time to completion” of the sūtras is not our goal. Instead, we are striving to understand clearly what Patañjali wants to convey in each sūtra. So please bear with me for the time being.