Yoga Sutra - Samādhi Pada 1.44
एतयैव सविचारा निर्विचारा च सूक्ष्मविषय व्याख्याता ॥४४॥
etayā-eva savicārā nirvicārā ca sūkṣma-viṣayā vyākhyātā ||44||
Similarly explained are sarvicara and nirvicara which are subtle conditions.
The states of samādhi with “subtle awareness” and without “subtle awareness,” whose objects of focus are the subtle nature [of things], are explained in the same manner.
I should note again that terms such as “subtle awareness” are somewhat artificial attempts at finding English equivalents to technical Sanskrit terms. In point of fact, the Sanskrit terms themselves may also be something of an artificiality, since they are standard terms in Indic philosophical treatises that carry different meanings in other contexts but are appropriated by Patañjali as labels to point to supernormal states of consciousness (just as, say, we appropriate existing Latin terms to denote new and previously unknown species of flora we might discover). As the purport of terms such as nirvitarkā indicates, how can a term denote something that is by its very definition beyond word and meaning? Be that as it may, it is best, in my view, to retain the Sanskrit terms, rather than perpetuate clumsy English translations, which sometimes can be just as abstruse and incomprehensible and thus are of no greater usefulness to the reader than the Sanskrit terms they replace.
Vicāra–samādhi is the second of the four stages of samādhi in I.17, and, like vitarka, is here also separated into two subdivisions of sa-, with, and nir-, without. The overall difference between savitarka– and nirvitarka–samāpatti, and savicāra– and nirvicāra–samāpatti, as noted in I.17, Vyāsa reminds us, is that the former focus is on the gross physical elements that comprise an object, and the latter is on the subtle elements, sūkṣma–viṣayatvam, that underpin these gross elements in objects. Vijñānabhikṣu defines “subtle” as that which is the source or cause of something that evolves from it (recall that the gross elements are evolutes from the subtle elements, which are thereby their causes). Additionally, the subtle aspects of prakṛti cannot be perceived by the gross senses; as noted, subtler things can be perceived only by things even subtler than themselves.
The implication of this from the Sāṅkhyan perspective on this sūtra is that one can experience an object as consisting of the gross elements—earth, air, water, fire, and ether—as is the case in conventional perception, or one can penetrate this immediate and more physical nature of the object and perceive it as consisting of the essences underpinning these elements—the subtle essences of sound, touch, taste, sight, smell, which are the sources from which the gross elements evolve. This is the perception arising in savicāra–samādhi. Vijñānabhikṣu gives an outline here of the Yoga understanding of how aṇus, the smallest subatomic particles of gross matter, which form the basis of vitarka perception, are produced from their causes, the subtle elements. Vicāra, then, is when meditative focus becomes absorbed in the tanmātras, the subtle elements underpinning any object of meditation.
This process of penetrating into the subtle or essential nature of an object might be analogous to seeing a piece of ice as a hard chunk of solid substance, or perceiving its deeper nature as essentially the fluid element of water, or, deeper still, as solidified vapor. And one can go further in the analogy and see all of these as a combination of yet finer entities—hydrogen and oxygen molecules—and these can in turn be dissolved into their still finer subatomic physical constituents. As this principle that a gross object is in fact constituted of finer and then still finer energies and elements holds good in modern physics, so it does for Sāṅkhyan physics. One difference is that in modern science, the atomic or subatomic structures of matter can be perceived only by advanced mechanical instrumentation, or inferred as existing, whereas Patañjali and the Yoga tradition claim that the yogī can actually and personally perceive or, more accurately, experience with the mind the subtle essences of an object without any such props. They are directly experiential, since the subtle (and gross) elements are evolutes of a substratum of mind stuff, and the Sāṅkhyan principle is that subtler dimensions of prakṛti can experience grosser ones. In other words, since one’s mind is composed of the same substance as the buddhi substratum of any object, gross or subtle, it can blend with this substratum and thus percolate the object intimately from within, so to speak.
When the intensity of focus on the object of meditation deepens such that the yogī penetrates its gross externalization and experiences the object as consisting of subtle elements, the tanmātras, but subtle elements circumscribed as existing in time and space, then the ensuing concentrative state of awareness is known as savicāra. In other words, in savicāra meditation, an object is perceived as consisting of subtle elements, but the object is still experienced as existing in the present time, rather than in the past or future, and is still bounded by space, that is, it is taking up some distinct physical space in the presence of the meditator rather than being situated anywhere else. Briefly put, at this stage, the yogī still has some level of awareness of space and time. All this will become clearer when contrasted with nirvicāra below.
When, on the other hand, the yogī can focus on the object unconditioned by such dimensionality, when he or she can focus not just on the subtle nature of an object but can transcend space and time and perceive that these subtle essences pervade and underpin all things at all times, then the yogī has attained the state of nirvicāra. In this state, the yogī is no longer aware of dimensionality and temporality—the here and now. The object is no longer a distinct object taking up extension in a portion of space different from other spatial objects and existing in the present, rather than any other time, because the yogī experiences the subtle elements of the object as underpinning all objects at all times. In other words, the form of the object dissolves, as it were, under the power of the yogī’s focus, and the yogī now is simply experiencing vibrant subtle energies pervading all reality everywhere and eternally.
Hariharānanda uses the sun as a rough but useful example for the four types of samāpatti. Savitarka–samādhi is analogous to focusing without distraction on the sun, cognizing it as an object of a certain shape composed of fire atoms and situated at a certain distance, with some intuitive awareness of its name and function in the natural scheme of things. Nirvitarka–samādhi can be compared to the deepening of one’s focus until one sees the sun only as a luminous object in the heavens but without awareness of its name, size, distance, function, shape, composition, etc. Savicāra corresponds to perceiving that the fire element of the sun is actually the tanmātra, subtle element, of light, but one’s awareness is still circumscribed by the specific location of the sun in the universe and by the fact that it is perceived in the present, rather than the past or future. When, however, all awareness of Space and Time dissolves, and one sees the pure light, devoid of color, pervading not just the sun but all things at all times, in other words, one is aware only of omnipresent eternal light, then one’s meditative state is known as nirvicāra.
We can now return to Śaṅkara’s claim that the recitation of oṁ along the lines indicated in these sūtras culminates in a supersensory face-to-face encounter with Īśvara: “By the perfection of repetition [of oṁ] and meditation on the supreme Īśvara, the supreme ātman (paramātman) situated in the highest place (parameṣṭhin) shines forth for the yogī.” Given the centrality of the chanting (japa) of oṁ, it is important to bring the greater insight from the technical information of these sūtras to bear on the discussion of the recitation of oṁ initiated in I.28, following Coward (1985).
In the savitarka stage of chanting, oṁ is mixed up with the conventional meanings and ideas that we now know define vitarka meditation—perhaps a mental image of Īśvara derived from the deity in one’s local temple, or from some painting, or the sectarian tradition in which one has been raised or to which one has dedicated oneself. One’s mental notions of Īśvara will be molded by one’s saṁsāric background and saṁskāric makeup. Therefore, at the savitarka stage of samādhi, one’s chanting is obscured by these conventional notions of conceiving Īśvara. At the nirvitarka stage, these are eliminated, and Īśvara begins to manifest from the sound oṁ in his own pure nature, unobstructed by the concocted images and associations that the yogī has fostered. At the third stage of savicāra, as the citta’s focus on the recitation of the mantra deepens, one penetrates into the inner essence of the sound and actually begins to experience, that is, directly perceive, Īśvara in his pure sāttvic body. The yogī’s mind is now so completely absorbed in this vision of Īśvara that he or she has lost all self-awareness. One forgets one’s own self in the rapture of this divine vision (but, it is imperative to note, contra advaita Vedānta, one nonetheless always remains a distinct individual). In the final stage, one’s absorption in this vision of Īśvara is extracted from any notion of Time and Space, and Īśvara (and the sound of oṁ of which Īśvara is the seed) is experienced as the infinite and eternal Supreme Being.
There is some difference among commentators, both traditional and modern, regarding whether there are six or eight levels of samprajñata–samādhi. Vācaspati Miśra suggests that just as there are sa– and nir– forms of vitarka and vicāra, by a parallel logic there should be sa– and nir– forms of ānanda and asmitā. In other words, Vācaspati Miśra envisions sānanda and nirānanda as well as sāsmitā and nirasmitā, resulting in eight stages of samprajñāta–samādhi. Vijñānabhikṣu specifically disagrees with Vācaspati Miśra on this point, rightly in my view. First, he says, there is no authority for such a claim; in other words, neither Patañjali nor Vyāsa mentions any such subdivision of ānanda and asmitā. But in any event, ānanda means bliss and asmitā means awareness of consciousness, he says, and there simply are no states corresponding to nirānanda, without bliss, or nirasmitā, without awareness of consciousness, at this lofty stage of enlightenment.
Recent analyses, both scholarly and from the yogic tradition itself, have accommodated themselves around both sides of the issue. My own view is that it is a priori in Vijñānabhikṣu’s favor that neither Patañjali nor Vyāsa mentions such a taxonomy. Most obviously and simply, this sūtra specifically states that savicāra and nirvicāra are to be vyākhyāta, explained, in the same way; if Patañjali had intended sānanda and nirānanda and sāsmitā and nirasmitā to be explained in the same fashion, he would have specified this here. And if one argues that, out of sūtraic briefness, he chose not to do so, Vyāsa would have certainly been expected to fill in the gap. The difference of views, however, remains valid, and I acknowledge that I found Koelman’s speculative foray into what might possibly be the experiential constituents of hypothetical sānanda, nirānanda, sāsmitā, and nirasmitā states to be cogent as well as accomodatable within the metaphysical parameters of Yoga psychology.
In the higher stages of samādhi (which will be discussed next), Hariharānanda notes that the tanmātras are not the only subtle elements underpinning the metaphysics of an object—they themselves are evolutes from still subtler entities such as ahaṅkāra and buddhi. These subtler elements too can be the object of samādhi, as the next sūtra indicates.