Yoga Sutra - Samādhi Pada 1.37
वीतरागविषयम् वा चित्तम् ॥३७॥
vīta-rāga-viṣayaṃ vā cittam ||37||
Or [the mind becomes steady when it has] one who is free from desire as its object.
In this sūtra, Patañjali indicates that the goal of yoga can be attained by meditation on a pure-minded yogī. Vyāsa says that when contemplating the minds of those who are free from desire, vīta–rāga, one’s own mind becomes tinged by the purity of their minds. Vācaspati Miśra says that Vyāsa himself is such a personage. Many of us have at some point in our lives had the experience of being in the presence of someone who, if not “free from desire,” at least has a noteworthy level of selflessness and compassion, and have felt our own potential higher qualities emerge by this association.
The commentators do not elaborate much on this sūtra, but, naturally, one is affected by the company one keeps. The guru-disciple relationship that this sūtra hints at is sacrosanct in most Hindu spiritual lineages. The Gītā states, “A knower of truth can impart knowledge to you. Know that truth by surrendering to such a person, serving him and asking questions” (IV.34).223 By intense dedication and service to a yogī with a pure sāttvic mind, one’s own mind can become fixed and free from personal desires. Many Hindu spiritual traditions promote surrender and service to the guru as the highest form of meditation, and this type of focus seems reflected in this sūtra.
Having noted this, it would be irresponsible not to make some mention here of the recurrence of sometimes very serious scandals and abuses of power associated with numerous charismatic and high-profile gurus who have traveled to the West, initiated large numbers of western disciples, and taught their followers absolute dedication and surrender to the guru. Since many of these individuals have, explicitly or implicitly, presented themselves as enlightened beings and allowed cultures of absolute allegiance to develop among their followers, the lives of their disciples, many of whom had dedicated their prime years to serving and following such teachers, are thrown into turmoil when confronted with such scandals (very similar patterns of response can be traced across differing yoga communities who have had to deal with such problems). The cognitive dissonance resulting from the conflict between the idealized notions of the guru and the sordid facts of some of these scandals almost invariably causes trauma, denial, defensiveness, and demonization of the victims and exposers, etc., within the group, and cynicism from observers outside the group. Therefore, it seems prudent to stress that, according to Patañjali, the type of meditation proposed here should be directed only toward a yogī who is free from desire. Aspiring yogīs seeking a guru might benefit by considering Kṛṣṇa’s responses in the Gītā when asked by Arjuna how, in the real world, one can practically and realistically recognize a yogī who has “realized the true self.” After all, if one has not realized one’s own puruṣa, how can one identify someone else who has? Arjuna phrases the question in very basic categories:
How does one describe one whose insight is steady and who is situated in samādhi, O Kṛṣṇa? How does one whose intelligence is fixed speak? How does he sit? How does he move about?
Lord Kṛṣṇa replied:
A person is said to be of steady insight when he is contented in the ātman by means of the ātman, and when he has renounced all desires, which are produced by the mind. A person is said to be a sage of steady intelligence whose mind is not agitated in misfortune, whose desire for material pleasures is gone, and whose passion, fear and anger have disappeared. A person is of steady insight who is renounced on all sides, who does not rejoice or bemoan upon attaining anything, whether pleasant or unpleasant … and who completely withdraws the senses from the sense objects, like a tortoise withdraws its limbs [into its shell]. (II.54ff)
Arjuna’s question here is in the Vedānta context of the ātman. He asks the identical question later in the Sāṅkhya context of the three guṇas:
Oh master, by what signs is a person who has transcended these three guṇas [recognized]? What is his conduct And how does he transcend these three guṇas?
Lord Kṛṣṇa replied:
… A person is said to have transcended the guṇas who is situated in detachment and not disturbed by the guṇas; who stands firm and is not affected, thinking: “it is only the guṇas that are operating” [i.e., not the soul]; who is situated in the self; equipoised in pain and pleasure; to whom gold, a stone and a lump of earth are one and the same; who is equal to those who are dear, as well as to those who are not dear; who reacts neutrally to criticism and praise of himself; who is equal in honor and dishonor, equal to friends and enemies, and who renounces all [self-centered] enterprises. He who serves me with the yoga of undeviating devotion (bhakti), he transcends these guṇas and is qualified for absorption into Brahman; for I am the support of Brahman. (XIV.21–27)
Thus, freedom from desire and tranquillity in all circumstances are the minimum qualities of one who has realized his or her puruṣa self. By rephrasing this information at some length in two different contexts, as well as sprinkling the entire text repeatedly with parallel descriptions of the true sage226 the Gītā makes a point of stressing the qualities of a genuinely accomplished yogī such that charlatans or (initially) sincere but fallen yogīs can better be recognized. Being free of desire (and its correlate, anger) is nonnegotiable.
While on this topic, one might also note that Patañjali later stresses that observance of the yamas—nonviolence, truthfulness, celibacy, nonstealing, and noncovetousness—are absolute and universal for all yogīs (II.31). There are no exceptions. Any guru claiming to have transcended the need to follow these basic rules, or of being qualified to compromise them in the name of some sort of higher esoteric spirituality or yogic technique, is thus not in line with Patañjali’s teachings.