Karma & Kleśas
“Yoga requires a revaluation of confused patterns of our thinking;
Relaxed mind without inhibitions, restraints and over-activity;
One-pointed projection on the chosen image symbol of attention;
Counting, holding the breath, helps for soft relaxed concentration.
Meditation becomes the calm continuity of retrospective think,
Keep the mind awake for trance and sleep yield you nothing.
Then you will become ready for real Yogic contemplation.”
– Mahendranath, The Magnum Opus of Twilight Yoga
When you are trying to establish good practices and make positive changes in your life, you will often meet the resistance of your current patterns. This is the built up inertia of our habits. It can also be called our karma, the accumulated results of all of our previous actions. The word karma literally means action. Karma can be both good and bad. Our beneficial habits, a good upbringing, a thorough education, all of these are things that are the results of past actions (whether by ours or others’) that we can draw upon.
All actions in this world are interconnected and like usually breeds like. Violence often breeds more violence, so when a person behaves violently, they are helping to engineer a world that is more violent, where more violence will probably be visited upon them. Unfortunately, they may have behaved violently in the first place because violence had been wreaked on them. And so the vicious cycle can go on and on. Most of the time, a person will end up visiting their injuries on someone completely new and not even the originator of their own hurt. Much of history is just a documentation of how atrocity has led to atrocity.
Luckily, the same is often true for things that we consider more positive. Someone who has been the recipient of incredible kindness will often carry that kindness forward to others. Additionally, we do have the free will to not just merely react to a situation, but to choose how we wish to act. Just because we have been treated with cruelty, violence, and antagonism does not mean that we have to dish these out in turn. We can abandon self-perpetuating ideas of retribution and allow the wheels of karma to slowly lumber to a halt. This may take a long time to work itself out, but it is the only way we can heal ourselves and perhaps the world.
So, karma is not ultimately about some kind of comforting idea of a universal justice system, punishing those who are bad and rewarding you for your good deeds. It’s more about owning up to your own past. It’s about learning what you do (and have done) unconsciously that contributes to the systems of power and violence that are in place in this world. It’s about starting to see how you benefit from these systems and learning how to take responsibility for it.
“Karma is bad if it involves harm, loss or suffering to other beings.
Thus, positive welfare thoughts and actions generate only good Karma
And can overcome bad Karmas brought over from previous lives.” – Mahendranath
In the Yoga Sutras, the obstacles which impede our development and our practice are called kleśhas, or afflictions. There are five of them:
Avidyāsmitārāgadveṣābhiniveśāḥ pañca kleśāḥ (YS II:3) –
The five afflictions (kleśa) are ignorance (avidya), egotism (asmitā), attachment (rāga), repulsion (dveṣa), and fear of death (abhiniveśa).
1. Avidyā – Ignorance
2. Asmitā – Egotism
3. Rāga – Attachment (also, “attraction” or “desire”)
4. Dveṣa – Repulsion (also, “aversion”)
5. Abhiniveśa – Fear of death (clinging to life)
Mahendranath created a nice English language rhyme which serves as a nice reminder and mnemonic:
“The five pain-bearing obstructions,
The root causes of trouble and strife:
Ignorance, Ego, Repulsion, Attachment & Clinging To Life.”
He also emphasized the importance of studying, understanding, and dismantling our own kleśas if we wish to make any kind of real spiritual progress:
“The entire Magick structure of our fantastic Twilight Yoga
Is rooted in the five kleshas (Sanskrit term for obstructions).
They are the cause of all the miseries and afflictions of life.
The vast mass of mankind live and suffer through these defects,
And they must be understood before real practice can begin,
For nothing can be attained until the mind knows these obstacles.
They are impediments to Yoga, happy life and Cosmic harmony.
Unless they are controlled, we will always be frustrated
From entry to the Twilight Zone between two worlds.”
So, let’s take a look at these in turn:
Avidyā - Ignorance
Avidyā kṣetramuttareṣāṃ prasuptatanuvicchinnodārāṇam (YS II:4) –
Ignorance is the source of all the other afflictions, whether it is dormant, mitigated, interrupted, or increasing.
Anityāśuciduḥkhānātmasu nityaśukhātmakhyātiravidhyā (YS II:5) –
Ignorance is mistaking the transitory for the permanent, mistaking the impure for the pure, mistaking suffering for happiness, and mistaking what is not Self, for the Self.
Ignorance is listed first because it is the source of the rest of the kleśhas. This is because it is always out of ignorance of our True Nature and Purpose that we are bound. From this all problems arise. Ignorance in this context is not just a lack of knowledge, but a mistaken perception. Ignorance is, at its base, mistaking something for something else. The Yoga Sutras give us the important instances of this. For example, mistaking the transitory for the permanent.
Mahendranath’s take: “Non-science, untrue, bogus, illusion, delusion, lack of awareness of reality or the real, unenlightened, backward. It is also the ground in which the four other Kleshas fertilize. Thus ignorance is when we think the unreal is actually real; that matter is the ultimate or only important real substance; mistaking religion, dogmas or superstitions for spirituality. When we think in terms of ‘I’, ‘I am the body’, ‘this is me’. Ignorance is absence of knowledge of the spirit of man.”
Asmitā - Egotism
Egotism is next and it is itself a kind of ignorance:
Dṛgdarśanaśaktyorekātmatevā’smitā (YS II:6) –
Egotism is confusing the intellect with the immutable Self.
So, it is not wrong or bad that we have an intellect, it may even prove quite useful to us. What is wrong is that we then assume the supremacy of the intellect and prop it up as the very basis of our Self. However, the intellect, to refer back to the previous Sutra, is transitory and ever-changing.
“Ego: The ‘I’ or ‘Me-maker’, the opinion we have of ourselves, but one that is seldom shared by others. An imagined personality. Mistaken identification of nature, mind and Spirit as the body. To identify oneself with worldly life, the body and the senses. Arrogant conceit is often a cover to hide one’s inferiority. Real men and women have no need to advertise themselves. Ego is a mask we wear to try and hide and veil what we are.” – Mahendranath
Rāga & Dveṣa - Attachment & Repulsion
Sukhānuśayī rāgaḥ (YS II:7) –
Attachment follows pleasure
Duḥkhānuśayī dveṣaḥ (YS II:8) –
Repulsion follows pain
This definition of raga, or attachment, implies that it is not desire or pleasure itself that is the problem, it is the fact that when we experience a pleasure or the fulfillment of a desire, we only seek to recreate it. Thus attached, we become a slave to certain objects of the senses. If we allow ourselves to experience our pleasures and desires as they are, without a covetous attitude of expectation, then we will maintain our freedom.
Similarly, when we experience pain as a result of something, we feel a deep aversion to that thing in the future. This is healthy to an extent (it would not exactly be beneficial to our health if we were to touch a hot stove again and again), but it also leads us to be enslaved by our fear of certain objects of the senses. There is a saying that the difference between pain and suffering is that pain is inevitable in life, but suffering is optional. Suffering is the mental chatter with which we prolong our pain through narration. In many stories within the Zen tradition, a Master might slap his disciple across the face to gauge his reaction. He was not looking to see that the disciple felt no pain, but was instead watching to see if the disciple reacted afterwards. Did he look betrayed? Did his facial expressions cast accusations or question why this had happened? Or did he experience the pain and then allow himself to move on?
“Attachment: Possessiveness, ownership, liking, attraction. Attachment to people, things and ideas. To join, connect or associate ourselves with something. ‘This is ours’, ‘This is mine’. Attachment in its negative sense to things we cannot own or keep. Often the cause of quarrels, violent conflicts and even war. Expressed also as race, nationality, my country, my money. Attachments can only have free play on lower mind levels.”
“Repulsion: Aversion or repulsion to people, things or ideas. Its counterpoise is obviously a state of equipoise-neutrality. The true nature of the Spirit (Atman) is non-discriminating. Aghora (Lord Shiva) means nothing is horrible in itself.”
“Repulsion and attachments are two sides of a single coin. Their obstacle value can be impediments which may be overcome by contentment, neutrality, tranquility and knowledge.” – Mahendranath
Attraction and repulsion create and maintain each other. One is not possible without the other. If one experiences pleasure, one is not only attracted to the object that “caused” the pleasure, but repelled against anything which will prevent its future manifestation. Similarly, if one experiences pain, one is repelled from the object which “caused” the pain, as well as attracted to anything which may prevent it from returning. In reality, pleasure and pain exist only in the mind as two sides of a single coin.
Many Indian Deities are often depicted holding a noose in one hand and a goad (a spur or whip used for driving horses) in the other. These symbolize the dual powers of attraction and repulsion. The noose reels you in with pleasantries and desires, while the goad chases you away with pain and disagreeable things. By holding these objects in opposite hands, the Deities demonstrate that They are beyond this duality. It also shows that They can aid you through either power, by attracting the positive or by chasing away the negative.
Abhiniveśa – Fear of death/Clining to life
Svarasavāhī viduṣo’pi tathārūḍho’bhiniveśaḥ (YS II:9) –
Fear of death is the mistaken fear of non-existence which exists even in the wise.
“Clinging to Life: Fear of death. Desire for body continuity. Though most of human life is pain, misery, sickness and woe, delusion gives most people an abnormal desire to live. The other four Kleshas help to strengthen the delusion. Every living body has a limited life-span to live on earth and humans are no exception to what are but natural laws.” – Mahendranath
The desire to live is another desire which does have a necessary and healthy root. Realizing that life is a worthwhile endeavor, we must take care to preserve it. However, we must realize that our true Self can never perish and that it is impossible for us not to exist. Otherwise, our fear of non-existence can lead us to the full culmination of the dangers of attraction and repulsion. We live our lives anxiously and furtively, always afraid and never able to fully experience. When we cling to life, we suffocate it. It is important to note that this last Kleśha is seen as especially tenacious. Patañjali notes that it “exists even in the wise.”
Te pratiprasavaheyāḥ sukṣmāḥ (YS II:10) –
The subtle form of the kleśhas disappear through disappearance of the mind.
Dhyānaheyāstadvṛttayaḥ (YS II:11) –
The more gross expressions of kleśhas are avoided through meditation.
Our afflictions are best cut before they have a chance to fruit. This is how we change our karma. It is through meditation that we are able to dismantle kleśhas before they reach manifest forms. Vyāsa compares this to a roasted seed which is then unable to sprout. Meditation is the key which unlocks this process of mind, granting us the power and insight to roast these seeds before they can cause us harm. And what about the “seeds” themselves? These are what are called the “subtle” form of the kleśhas. They finally disappear when the mind itself is resolved back into its substratum at the time of our final liberation.
“Impediments of the mind are the obstacles to our attainment.” – Mahendranath
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Swami Hariharananda Aranya. Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1983. (See Chapter 2:1-26 for more info)
Shri Gurudev Mahendranath. The Magnum Opus of Twilight Yoga. https://www.internationalnathorder.org/twilight-yoga-ii/