Yoga Sutra 1.16: Self-Knowledge Leads to Independence

Shiva is often pictured with a trident. The three points represent the gunas (sattva, rajas and tamas), over which he has perfect control.
Shiva is often pictured with a trident. The three points represent the gunas (sattva, rajas and tamas), over which he has perfect control.

TAT PARAM PURUSA KHYĀTER GUNAVAITRSNYAM.
When there is non-thirst for even the gunas (constituents of Nature) due to realization of the Purusha (true Self), that is supreme non-attachment.

The sutras so far have introduced us to a few relatively simple but extremely important concepts of Samkhya or yogic philosophy, but this one jumps into some slightly advanced concepts, so we’ll need to break it down a little.

Gunas: These are the three basic forces of nature according to Samkhya. They are tamas (heavy, dark, inert), rajas (active, agitated), and sattva (light, serene).

Purusha: The true Self, that which is not defined by a body, physical/emotional/mental state, or even relationship to the outside world. The Purusha is both individual because it exists within each of us and universal because it is the same for all of us.

Every person alive is affected to some degree by the gunas, and we can get pretty in-depth discussing them, but I’ll stick with an overview for now. Say you have the following set of habits: You’re busy all the time, and even when you have time off you have to be doing something. That’s a rajasic person. If you tend to stay at home, not reach out to others and shy away from challenges, those are tamasic traits. If you are constantly meditating and even your interactions with others have a meditative quality, that would be a more sattvic way to live. Most of us are some combination of the three. People who are very tamasic tend to be depressed. People who are very rajasic tend to be anxious. And people who are very sattvic can often seem ungrounded and flighty. So you can see why it’s important to try and find a healthy balance between the three gunas.

What Patanjali tells us here is that the more we are in touch with our true nature, the less we are affected by the gunas. Instead of being pulled in these different directions all the time, we become more balanced and stable.

Here’s a simpler translation from T.K.V. Desikachar:
When an individual has achieved complete understanding of his true self, he will no longer be disturbed by the distracting influences within and around him.

Friends, you and I are not at that level. Gradually, all those distractions and desires that we chase through life will be replaced with a sense of calm and contentment. That’s the promise of our yoga practice. Until then, as always, just keep practicing.

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