Yoga Sutra - Samādhi Pada 1.4
At other times it takes the form of the fluctuations.
Otherwise, at other times, [the seer] is absorbed in the changing states [of the mind].
Patañjali states here that at other times—that is, when not abiding in its own nature as pure consciousness devoid of content—the seer is absorbed, sārūpyam, in the vṛttis, the mind’s changing states. Vyāsa calls the soul the master and the mind its property: He compares the mind to a magnet that attracts iron within its proximity—the consciousness of puruṣa. The mind serves its master, the soul, by presenting objects of experience in the form of vṛttis. When these ever-changing states of mind are presented to the soul, the soul becomes conscious of them, but is mistakenly identified with them by the citta, and thereby appears affected by them. This misidentification, or ignorance, avidyā, is the cause of the soul’s apparent bondage in the physical world of matter. Vācaspati Miśra repeats the analogy of someone looking in a dirty mirror, identifying with the dirty reflection, and then becoming anxious thinking he or she is dirty. Likewise, when one is not aware of the distinction between consciousness and the mind, one wrongly attributes the states of the mind to the self. The cause of the person’s anxiety, frustrations, and experiences is misidentification with something that he or she is not.
The notion of misidentifying the true self with a false reflection goes back to the Upaniṣads. In the Chāndogya Upaniṣad (VIII.8–12), there is a charming narrative about Indra, lord of the celestials, and Virocaṇa, lord of the demons. Upon hearing that by attaining the ātman, one conquers the universe, the two rivals approached the sage Prajāpati for instruction as to where to find this ātman. Perceiving their misguided intent for this enterprise (their interest was in gaining control over the universe, for which the gods and demons are perennially battling), Prajāpati decides to test them. He tells them that they can find the ātman by looking into a pan of water. Peering into the waters, the two see their bodies reflected back. They take their leave, thinking that their bodies are this ātman, and, while Virocaṇa remains content with this surface realization, Indra sees the inadequacy of this view of the ātman and so returns to Prajāpati. “I see no worth in this,” he complains, “for this self will die when the body dies.” Prajāpati then takes him through progressively more subtle understandings of the self until he teaches him the true nature of ātman.
Although the mind is actually inert and unconscious, say the commentators, as a result of being permeated by the consciousness of the soul, its states and fluctuations appear to be states of the true self and are as if experienced by the self. (Recall the analogy of a dark object appearing to be luminous due to contact with an illuminating lamp.) And so, says Vācaspati Miśra, the soul, which has no misconceptions, appears to have misconceptions and, although completely pure and transcendent, appears to be affected by mundane states of mind such as pleasure, pain, or delusion. This is like the phenomenon of a lake appearing to have trees on it due to the reflection of the trees on its bank, says Vijñānabhikṣu. Bhoja Rāja gives the well-known illustration of the moon appearing to be altered and rippled when reflected on rippling water, but it is the water, not the moon, that constantly fluctuates due to the wind. Similarly, the mind is constantly experiencing and processing the forms of sense objects through the senses. It is thus constantly changing, like the flame of a candle, says Vijñānabhikṣu, and, depending on the experiences of the moment, producing temporary states such as happiness, distress, etc. The self, although pure, is then misidentified with these changing states of the mind, due to proximity, and appears also to be affected. It seems to experience the emotions of the mind triggered by the senses and their objects, and thus to be the enjoyer or sufferer of the things of this world. In reality it is not affected, any more than the moon is affected by the ripples on its reflection in water. Vijñānabhikṣu quotes the Gītā: “One who sees that all activities are being performed by prakṛti, and that the self is not the doer, truly sees” (XIII.29).
Śaṅkara here alludes to the image of a dancing girl in the Sāṅkhya Kārikās, the primary text for the Sāṅkhya school: “As a dancer ceases from the dance after having been seen by the audience, so also prakṛti ceases after having manifested herself to the puruṣa” (LIX). In the same vein, a more modern analogy comes to mind for the process by which prakṛti is conjoined with puruṣa. Consider a group of people watching a film. The film itself consists of just a sequence of inert flickering images and sounds, which are nothing more than light particles and frequency waves—material energy. The people watching the film, however, can become so absorbed in this spectacle of light and sound that they forget their own existence. If the film is a good one, two or three hours can pass during which the viewers forget about their real lives and personal issues they are undergoing, such as mental anxieties or fears, or bodily needs or aches and pains. Moreover, the viewers can become so wrapped up in the illusory world of the film that they experience, let us suppose, sadness when the hero or heroine is killed, or happiness when hero and heroine live happily ever after. In other words, the viewers forget their own separate existences and experience emotions produced by intense identification with the illusory and separate world of the film. Indeed, a good performance (and this is also the case in classical Hindu dramaturgy) aims to stir precisely such absorption and identification. When the film is over, the viewers are thrust back into their own realities—they are suddenly returned to the world of their own problems, perhaps they become aware of being hungry or thirsty.
In the same way, due to the mind’s ignorance and illusion, the soul appears absorbed in the lights and sounds and emotions of the external objective world and forgetful of its own real nature as pure consciousness, even though it is merely the witness of all these, which are actually taking place in the mind’s vṛttis. Yoga is about stilling the vṛttis, stopping the film midway so that the mind can realize that the emotions, fears, happiness, pains, births and deaths, etc., it has been experiencing do not exist in the soul but are the inert flickerings and permutations of the material spectacle. Thus yoga is ultimately about liberation from the external material world, or, in traditional Hindu terms, from saṁsāra, the cycle of birth and death.
Vācaspati Miśra raises the question of the cause of the soul’s association with the mind in the first place, in other words, the cause of ignorance. It is eternal, he answers, like the relationship between seed and sprout. Almost all schools of Indic philosophy conceive of ignorance as eternal and do not speculate over any first impetus that caused the individual to be associated with ignorance and saṁsāra. As the Buddha is reputed to have said, if a man is shot by an arrow, it is useless to inquire as to the nature of the arrow, its point of origin, etc. One should more profitably first remove the arrow.58 Likewise, for one drowning in the ocean of birth and death, saṁsāra, it is fruitless to speculate as to how one originally fell in; it would be more productive to find first a means to get out. Such a means, of course, is yoga.
vṛtti (f.) modification, turning, fluctuations; from √vṛi (turn, revolved, roll, move)
sārūpyam (n. nom. sg.) with the form, likeness, similarity of form; sā (with) +rūpya (stamped, impressions in the possession of), from rūp (form, shape, figure)
itaratra (ind.) at other times, otherwise