Four Chapters on Freedom: Yoga Sutras

Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Bihar School of Yoga

Anyone who is truly interested in yoga, and that includes meditation, has to read the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali. The sutras are widely regarded as the soul of yoga. The writing also goes by the name of Patanjali Yoga, or raja yoga (royal yoga or path), or the yoga of the mind. They were written in Sanskrit probably around 400 BC. The precise, frugal writing is methodical, logical, and scientific in its presentation. Like all ancient texts it leaves itself open to interpretation and thereby makes itself timeless. The knowledge is believed to have existed long before 400 BC. Since that time, many commentaries have been written. In this review, we focus on the commentary written by Swami Satyananda titled Four Chapters on Freedom: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as this is a manual on liberation of the mind and liberation from the mind.

This commentary is based on lectures given by Swami Satyananda during the International Yoga Teachers’ Training Course at the Bihar School of Yoga in 1967-68. It is a serious and illuminating commentary written and is used by many serious yoga teachers. The book is most suitable for advanced practitioners and patient readers. Each Sanskrit sutra is first given and then translated in detail. It is followed by a comprehensive commentary.

“The cow uttered the wisest words [M-o-o-o-o-o-o-o] in the satsang [of pundits discussing yoga]. Unknowingly, or perhaps knowingly, it told everyone, including the pandits, that the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali were not written for intellectual debate and speculation. They were written to explain the process and practical methods of raising levels of awareness, gaining deeper wisdom, exploring the potential of the mind and eventually going beyond the mind. The text is primarily practice oriented…”

These words from the introduction to the book say much about the author, his commentary, and the Yoga Sutras. The chapter clarifies the meaning of concentration and meditation right at the outset. These terms are used in so many ways in different countries, cultures, and texts even within the same tradition that a clarification of the meaning in a particular context is important to avoid misunderstanding.

The basis of the Yoga Sutras has much in common with Buddhism and Jainism as they all draw from an Indian system of philosophy called Samkhya. The scripture of the sutras is divided into four chapters. The first chapter starts with the definition of yoga and its purpose. It also gives advice on the means of attaining the experience of pure consciousness, obstacles to progress, methods of harmonizing the mind, and the importance of aum. The second chapter explains practices, basic tensions in life, how to remove them, the purpose for destruction of tensions, awareness versus lack of awareness, and intuitive knowledge. It also includes the well-known eight limbs (ashtanga) of yoga. The third chapter is on the powers of focus and concentration, meditation, superconsciousness, nature of external appearances, and transformation of external appearances. The fourth and final chapter discusses one-ness through the topics of cause of individuality, the individual and the cosmic mind, karma, unity of all things, perception, the unconscious mind, and the path to one-ness.

We conclude with the following passage from the introduction:

“Many of the verses indicate things that are beyond the range of normal mundane experience and comprehension. This is not done to bring an intellectual understanding. It is done so that a sadhaka (aspirant) who practices the yoga of Patanjali or any other system will progressively gain insight and understanding of the deeper aspects of being. He will gradually understand Patanjali’s cryptic verses through his own experience. The verses tell him if he is going in the right direction or not and also help him proceed further. The verses can never be understood intellectually, nor are they intended to be understood in this manner. The verses were written as a map, a guide for the journey from the mundane levels to higher levels of consciousness and eventually to liberation. The text shows the path to perfect freedom through sustained yogic practice.”

In this lucid and clear commentary of the sutras lies a deep understanding of yoga psychology considered by many to be very highly developed and older than Western psychology. This is why yoga meditation is found to be therapeutic by many practitioners. For practices, please refer to downloadable practice tracks in Pranayama and Meditation.

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