Yoga Sutra - Samādhi Pada 1.15
दृष्टानुश्रविकविषयवितृष्णस्य वशीकारसंज्णावैराग्यम् ॥१५॥
dṛṣṭa-anu-śravika-viṣaya-vitṛṣṇasya vaśīkāra-saṃjñā-vairãgyam ||15||
Dispassion is the knowledge of mastery in one who thirsts not for conditions seen or heard.
Dispassion is the controlled consciousness of one who is without craving for sense objects, whether these are actually perceived, or described [in scripture].
After defining practice, Patañjali turns to the second element in the restraint of the mind, vairāgyam, dispassion, renunciation. He defines dispassion as the absence of craving for sense objects, viṣaya. As examples of sense objects, Vyāsa mentions members of the opposite sex, food, drink, and power. He notes that such dispassion or detachment precludes the inclination either to accept or reject such objects, even when they are available. That renunciation involves disinterest toward indulging in sense objects is straightforward, but Vyāsa’s observation that it also involves disinterest to overly rejecting them merits
“attention. Too much energy and fanfare dedicated to overly rejecting sense objects can often indicate a hidden attachment to those very objects that is being overcompensated for. Real detachment is indifference to sense objects whether in their absence or presence. As Vācaspati Miśra points out, one might be free from desires for objects because one knows nothing about them, but this does not qualify as dispassion; dispassion is indifference to objects even when these are available. Vaśīkāra means to have control over; thus Bhoja Rāja states, with regard to desires, “I am not in their control—they are in my control.
With II.33–34 in mind, Vyāsa states that one who is renounced understands the defects of sensuality from reflection on its consequences, or, as Vijñānabhikṣu puts it, renunciation arises specifically from perceiving the defects of indulging in the objects of the senses, in other words, from discrimination. This is significant: The tradition does not take the position that sensual desires somehow disappear; desires are imprints of past pleasurable experiences that are recorded in the citta as saṁskāras. Saṁskāras never disappear; they always remain latent (except in the exceptional cases when they are burnt by yogic practice). When they reactivate, they create desires, the impulse to re-create the pleasurable experience (the desire to avoid unpleasant experiences works along parallel lines). As Vācaspati Miśra notes, the power of renunciation comes not from being free from desires but from being indifferent to them.
The discriminating yogī cultivates this indifference by recognizing that any sensual gratification, irrespective of how pleasurable, is temporary. Sooner or later, one is separated from the object of gratification and consequently experiences frustration. Through discrimination, one recognizes this inherent defect of sensual indulgence. One is also astute enough to realize realistically that there is always a karmic price to pay for the pursuit of pleasure (all actions, good or bad, when based on seeking gratification, generate correspondingly good or bad reactions and thus perpetuate saṁsāra). Simply put, renunciation “consists in the idea of ‘enough’” of this sense gratification, says Vijñānabhikṣu. One becomes exhausted with the unending pursuit of seeking fulfillment in this way but attaining only temporary and unfulfilling (from an ultimate perspective) pleasures. Therefore, the wise strive for detachment and the eternal experience of the soul rather than the never-ending pursuit of ephemeral pleasure. This is a recurring theme in the Gītā:
Detached from the external contact [of the senses with their objects] a person finds happiness in the ātman. Such a person, engaged in practicing the yoga of Brahman [the Absolute Truth], experiences eternal happiness. Material pleasures are born from the contact [of the senses with the sense objects]; they have a beginning and an end, and so they are the source of unhappiness. The wise do not delight in them. (V.21–22)
However, Vijñānabhikṣu also cautions that renunciation in and of itself does not guarantee success in yoga, and mentions the case of the sage Saubhari. The Bhāgavata Purāṇa (IX.6.40ff) tells the story of a sage whose desire for renunciation was so intense that he resolved to meditate under water so as to eliminate all the distractions of the sensual temptations of the world. However, he happened to open his eyes one day and notice two fish mating. This activated latent erotic saṁskāras in his own mind (perhaps from experiences recorded from previous births), and he again became overwhelmed with fantasies of sexual enjoyment, abandoned his meditation, and returned to worldly life. As noted, in normal circumstances, saṁskāras are not destroyed; they remain latent until suitable conditions arise for reactivation. Therefore, excessive renunciation in and of itself does not necessarily guarantee that one is freed from the potential reemergence of undesirable saṁskāras.
Vijñānabhikṣu outlines various stages of detachment: One begins by making an effort to break attachment; next one determines that detachment has been accomplished toward certain objects, while others still need some work; and then, when detachment from all the external objects of the senses has been achieved, one begins to target internal attachments. These include such things as the attachment to honor and respect, and the opposite, the dislike of dishonor and disrespect. One may be externally very renounced and austere but internally be very attached to the prestige renunciation can bring (for example, the reputation of being a great yogī, or of having many followers). In this way, one slowly starves the karmāśaya, the storehouse of karma discussed in II.12, by giving up all desires for the fruits of actions, thereby preventing the further planting of karmic seeds.
The commentators elaborate on Patañjali’s comment here that there are two types of sense objects: There are the dṛṣṭa, those seen in this world, the everyday sensual pleasures of life; and those that are not seen here but are anuśravika, heard about (anu + śru = to hear from authorities). This is a reference to Vedic texts, more commonly referred to as śruti (from the same root), texts that are transmitted and recited orally, and thus heard, and therefore is an indirect reference to the pleasures of the celestial realms referred to in these texts. Vyāsa states that detachment requires that one be indifferent also to the heavenly enticements described in the Vedas and such texts (as well as attainments from yoga practice such as those outlined in the next verse, and the mystic powers outlined in Chapter III).
The celestial realms mentioned in various Sanskrit literature as early as the Vedic hymns, but more elaborately in the Purāṇas, point to other worlds or dimensions within the material universe where the level of enjoyment, duration of life span, and quality of experience far exceed anything available in this world. These worlds are the destination of the pious—that is, the good karma accrued by the performance of dharma, socioreligious duty, can translate into sojourns in these celestial realms. By the later Upaniṣadic period, however, these realms were perceived to have a defect in that they, too, involve embodied existence within the confines of saṁsāra—they are not the ultimate or permanent destination of the soul. When the good karma, or righteous deeds, of the pious that earned them a place in these realms has expired, such souls return again to this world. Good karma is accumulated like money in the bank. When one starts to draw on one’s credit, however much one has accumulated, sooner or later the account will be depleted. Likewise, upon attaining the celestial realms as a result of the accumulation of merit while on earth, souls are able to remain there until their karmic bank account is inevitably depleted, at which point they again return to this world where suffering is much more pronounced.
“In this sūtra, Patañjali is implicitly criticizing aspects of Vedic ritualism, which, while on the decline due to the rise of the ascetic traditions including Buddhism and the great theistic devotional traditions of Vaiṣṇavism and Śaivism, would still have been a mainstream religious presence in his day. One of the expressed goals of Vedic ritualism is the obtainment of the good things in life in this world, followed by the pleasures of the celestial realms in the next.88 The Vedic hymns often express a lusty desire for very earthly boons such as cows, offspring, victory over enemies, etc., which the sacrificer in the earlier Vedic period attempted to obtain by cajoling the gods who controlled such things and, in the middle Vedic period, by mastering the technology of ritual such that the gods were constrained to bestow these boons.
One can read the entire religious and philosophical history of post-Vedic India as a rejection of Vedic ritualism by communities that were eventually to become heterodox to the Vedic matrix—the Buddhists and Jains—and as a demotion or radical reinterpretation of it by those, such as Patañjali and the Yoga school, who remained in the orthodox Vedic fold. Among this latter category, a sometimes quite scathing critique of the ritualistic mind-set can be found in texts as early as the Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad, a late Vedic text:
The fools, who proclaim [the Vedic sacrifices] as the ultimate, return again to old age and death. Wallowing in ignorance, but imagining themselves wise and thinking themselves learned, the fools go about harming themselves, like blind men led by a man who is himself blind. Wallowing in ignorance again and again, these foolish people imagine, “We have attained our goals!” Because of their desires, these ritualists do not have foresight, therefore they fall back down, wretched and despondent, when their time in the celestial realms expires. Deeming sacrifices and gifts [to the ritual priests] as the highest, these idiots know nothing better. When they have enjoyed their pious work [i.e., the fruits of their karma] in the celestial realms, they return again to this miserable world.
But those [seekers of the self] in the forest, peaceful and wise, who practice austerity and faith, as they wander around as mendicants, pass through the doorway of the sun, spotless, to where that immortal puruṣa is, the eternal ātman. (I.7–11)
“The Upaniṣadic/Yogic view, expressed in this early context, is that pleasures in this world or the next are temporary and simply entwine one in the cycle of birth and death. The Gītā, too, is forceful in its rejection of Vedic ritualism in language that parallels that of the Yoga commentarial tradition.
Those who are ignorant subscribe to the flowery words [of the Veda], Arjuna. Reveling in the Vedic rites, they proclaim “there is nothing else but this.” Their hearts filled with desires, intent on the celestial realms, they take to the path of performing numerous variegated rites, which are dedicated to the attainment of opulence and sensual enjoyment, but which bestow rebirth as the fruit of action. To such people, attached to sensual enjoyment and opulence, whose minds have been stolen by these flowery words, a mind fixed in samādhi is not granted. (II.42–44)
Patañjali’s reference to disinterest in ānuśravika–viṣaya, the sense objects available from Vedic ritualism, falls in this same vein: Clearly the goals of yoga are in complete contrast to the lusty goals of the normative Vedic sacrificial cult that was still a mainstream presence in his day. Therefore, disinterest in this type of ritualism, whether Vedic or other, is a prerequisite to yoga.
Essentially, the critique here is one of materialistic religiosity—religiosity performed with the motive of enjoying the good things of the world. This criticism is thus perennially relevant to the attitudes underpinning religious traditions other than Hindu ones, which likewise promote worldly boons as the goal of religious practice. In other words (connecting this verse to modes of religiosity on our own horizons), engaging in religious activities with material motives for mundane goals conflicts with the transcendent goals of yoga. In sum, renunciation means not only disinterest in the visible things of this world but also disinterest in some of the worldly or celestial boons that might be promoted in sacred scripture itself.
One more comment is in order here. A general principle of Sanskrit hermeneutics is that a first item mentioned on a list carries more importance than any subsequent items. Thus, of the five vṛttis, pramāṇa, right knowledge, is listed first—it is the most important state of mind. And even within the three subdivisions of pramāṇa, the Yoga school prioritizes pratyakṣa, direct experience; hence this is situated as the first item of the pramāṇa sublist. Of the two ingredients of nirodha, then, by this principle, abhyāsa is situated before vairāgya, since, by practice, the by-products of dispassion, detachment, and renunciation arise spontaneously. It is therefore generally a precondition of the latter.