Yoga Sutra - Sādhana Pada 2.31
जातिदेशकालसमयानवच्छिन्नाः सार्वभौमामहाव्रतम् ॥३१॥
jāti-deśa-kāla-samaya-anavacchinnāḥ sārva-bhaumāḥ mahā-vratam ||31||
When not limited by life-state, place, time, or circumstance in all occasions.
The cause of conjunction is ignorance.
In this very important sūtra, Patañjali states that the yamas are absolute and universal for aspiring yogīs—they cannot be transgressed or exempted under any circumstance such as class, jāti; place, deśa; time, kāla; or circumstance, samaya. They are nonnegotiable for yogīs. Patañjali is being conspicuously (and uncharacteristically) emphatic here. Not only are the yamas a vrata, vow, but a mahāvrata, great vow. This great vow is further qualified as being sārva-bhauma, universal. The term “universal” by definition should make any further qualification redundant, but Patañjali makes a point of additionally naming and eliminating any possible grounds or pleas for exception: These yamas are anavicchinnāḥ, not exempted because of one’s class, jāti; place, deśa; time, kāla; or circumstance, samaya. This is as absolute a statement as can be made. As noted, items placed first on a list carry greater importance than subsequent items, underscoring the importance of the yamas (and, by the same token, ahiṁsā as first of the yamas).
At the time of writing this section, there is a discussion in certain quarters of the Yoga community in America about the jurisdiction of the yamas in the twenty-first-century West. Whatever direction such discussions may take, and whatever hybrid practices evolve in the West under the rubric of yoga, this sūtra makes it very clear that as far as Patañjali is concerned, there are no exceptions to these rules at any time in any place for anyone aspiring to be a yogī as defined by his system. One might imagine that in Patañjali’s own circle, there would have been followers or disciples angling for exceptions to one or other of the yamas—perhaps arguing that the sacred Vedic law books, Dharma-śāstras, themselves allowed the brāhmaṇa caste, for example, to offer animals in Vedic sacrifices, or the kṣatriya caste to eat meat, or engage in sexuality. He is therefore being as emphatic here as the straightforward and plain use of human language allows.
One might add that these yamas are more or less universal among all the liberation-based spiritual traditions of ancient India, and even in the more worldly Dharma-śāstra traditions, the Vedic law books that concern themselves with more conventional sociocivic duties (for example, Manu X.63). This is so not only in orthodox Vedic traditions, but in heterodox ones too. The eightfold noble path of Buddhism, requires the observance of five sīlas, four of which—ahiṁsā, satya, brahmacarya, and asteya—are identical to the first four yamas, and one, abstinence from intoxication, replaces aparigraha, noncoveting. The Jains, too, have five great vows, for which they use the same term we find in this sūtra, mahāvrata, and these are identical to Patañjali’s yamas.58 The Nyāya Sūtras acknowledge yoga as the means to realize the ātman but specify that it entails the following of yama and niyama (IV.2.46). With certain nonmainstream exceptions such as the tāntric left-handed practices,59 these yamas are more or less standard across sectarian traditions, even if not listed in the specific format chosen by Patañjali. The Gītā, for example, lists some of the yamas in its description of the divine attributes (ahiṁsā and satya in XVI.2); in its description of the qualities of sattva (brahmacarya and satya in XVII.14–15); in its prescriptions for the yogī (aparigraha in VI.10); and under qualities emanating from Kṛṣṇa himself (brahmacarya and satya in X.4–5).
“The commentators elaborate on this sūtra through a discussion of nonviolence, since it is the most important yama and, as first member of the list, represents the others; however, the following discussion applies to all the yamas. The yama of nonviolence conditioned by caste, jāti, says Vyāsa, can be seen in the case of, say, a fisherman who, because of his caste occupation inflicts violence only on fish but nowhere else. Kṣatriyas, the warrior class, too, are allowed to engage in violence in certain contexts—hunting, for example, and, of course, on the battlefield. While this may hold in other circumstances such as these, nonviolence has no conditions for Patañjali. Jāti literally means family of birth; therefore, being born into a family or caste that eats meat does not constitute an exception to the practice of nonviolence. If, say, a kṣatriya wishes to become a yogī as understood by Patañjali, he must abandon violence even if such violence is legitimate for persons of this caste and, indeed, condoned or even required by dharmic prescriptions in the Dharma-śāstra texts, and even if such texts are also considered sacred scripture and authoritative. Manu, for example, who wrote one such law book, states, “Kings who try to kill one another in battle and fight to their utmost ability, never averting their faces, go to the celestial realms” (VII.89ff). One can envision that there would have been spiritual seekers in Patañjali’s entourage who would have been coming from kṣatriya or other jātis, castes, who might have pointed to such passages in sacred scripture.
“Here we see a distinction between the requirements of yoga covered in, for example, the karma-yoga section of the Gītā, where Kṛṣṇa exhorts Arjuna to do his civic duty as a kṣatriya warrior and fight, to specifically engage in violent warfare, and the ascetic tradition represented by Patañjali. What may be acceptable—or even required—in a sociocivic context must be renounced in an ascetic yogic one. Indeed, it is with this ascetic alternative in mind that Arjuna initially precisely wishes to renounce violence and take up the ascetic life of mendicancy (II.5). The Gītā, of course, while accepting the Patañjalian-type path as an acceptable means to attain liberation (e.g., chapter VI)” has, for the most part, a different objective, one directed to sociocivic concerns, and thus construes a different means to attain perfection from within the parameters of the idealized social system, namely karma-yoga, the path of action. While it has long been argued persuasively that the Yoga Sūtras are not incompatible with social and civic engagement in the world (e.g., Whicher 1998, 1999, 2005)—that is, once avidyā, ignorance, is eliminated, one can act in the world from a position of enlightenment60—Patañjali’s position on the role of the yamas could not be made much clearer.