Suffering According to the Yoga Sutras

The Seer

by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay is about the nature, causes and solution to suffering according to the essential doctrine of Yogasutras of Patanjali.

Just as it is not possible for water to remain free from motion, unless it is frozen, it is not possible for life to be free from suffering unless it is also frozen into death or annihilation. As one philosopher put it, death is an alleviation to the mortals who have suffered greatly in life. Hinduism suggests that sorrow is a state of mind which arises from desires, ignorance, conditioning, egoism, duality, attachments, delusion, impurities created by the gunas, karma, samskaras or latent impressions, modifications of the mind (citta vrittis), and sometimes by acts of God.

No one is free from suffering. As humans we suffer in all phases of our lives, from the time we are born until we die. As the Buddha declared, birth is suffering, death is suffering and our very existence is suffering. Whatever we do, only seem to aggravate our suffering. Our longing for life is a contradiction, considering that there is so much suffering in our lives. The Yoga Vashista rightly declares, “Man vainly seeks to extend his lifespan, and thereby he earns more sorrow and extends the period of suffering.” Thankfully, we get on with it and get over with it to focus our energies upon the prospect of living and finding peace and happiness.

Suffering is a condition in which we lose hope, fill our heart with vague yearnings and subject us to negative, mental and emotional states. It is basically an affliction of the ego which is accustomed to desire-ridden actions, striving and seeking, ownership, doership and disconnected individuality. It afflicts us to the extent we become involved with the materiality of the world, and remain ignorant of our spiritual identities and our essential nature as pure consciousness. When we are afflicted with impurities and selfish intentions, we become bound to suffering and the mortal world.

Sorrow has its own character. It has a dramatic and poetic nature about it. In suffering, the mind tends to exaggerate things, falsify and distort truths, color everything in its vision with its own darkness of depression and impair judgment and discernment. In suffering the mind becomes distracted and looks for excuses, convenient proofs and expedient reasons to justify its existence. In acute cases it pushes its victims over the edge into the abyss of death or instigates them to indulge in extreme acts of insanity and cruelty.

Sorrow does not mean mere crying and shedding tears. It has many shapes, colors, grades and guises. Some of them are so subtle that you may not know whether you are suffering at all. As the Yoga Sutras (2.15) declares, “For the discerning one everything is suffering which arises from the consequence of one’s actions, from sorrow itself, from the past life impressions, from the modifications of the mind.” Agony, despair, anguish, physical pain, sense of separation, sense of loss, helplessness and depression are some of its well-known forms.

Like many other scriptures of Hinduism, the Yogasutras is a systematic treatise not only on yoga but also on the problem of suffering and its resolution. Yoga is the means or the approach to address that problem. Liberation (Moksha) is the ultimate and permanent solution. The eight limbs of classical yoga aid the seekers to identify the causes and resolve them. For the beings who are born on earth, suffering is continuous because their minds are in a state of flux due to the presence of modifications (vrittis). It ceases to afflict a person only when his mind is stabilized, which is what Patanjali Yoga is all about.

It is important to remember that suffering does not completely cease to exist for anyone upon earth. If you are in the ocean, you are never free from the waves. So is the case with the suffering in the ocean of life. As someone said, there is a noble way to suffer and a wretched way to suffer. An awakened soul responds to suffering with noble stoicism, knowing well that the suffering is for the mind and the body but not for the soul. He reaches that state through an arduous journey. In the following discussion we will examine the causes and the solutions to suffering from the perspective of the Yoga Sutras.

The cause of suffering

The classical commentators of the Yoga Sutras agree that the triple gunas (sattva, rajas and tamas) are primarily responsible for our suffering. Of them rajas and tamas are the aggravators, and sattva is an alleviator. When they prevail, beings indulge in egoistic and selfish actions, which results in karma and suffering.

The Yogasutras views suffering from the perspective of the seer or the soul. It goes beyond the desires and the gunas to the root cause and states that the reason we experience suffering is because we become too involved with the things we perceive and accept them as part of our identities. Largely it is true because we are known to others by what we have rather than who we are. A wealthy person gains more attention than an ordinary person because we give more importance to ther possessions rather than to the persons. We look at people for what they have rather than what they are, and thereby come to accept them as different individuals according to their possessions, appearance and perceptions.

For us seeing is believing despite that our seeing itself is prone to several perceptual and cognitive errors. The Yogasutras takes into cognizance this worldly approach to understand why suffering arises. The problem of suffering exists because of how we view or perceive things and make them part of our own awareness and beliefs. When a person (seer) perceives objects, he experiences oneness with them or comes to believe that they are a part of him or his existence. This conjunction between the seer and what is seen is the source of suffering (Y.S. 2.16).

In reality, the objects do not belong to the seer. They have an existence of their own. They do not exist in the person who perceives them, except as images or impressions. However, due to lack of discernment, the seer takes the impressions which arise in his consciousness (chitta) for real and comes to believe that he has an association with them and they are part of his identity. By constantly dwelling upon them or dealing with them, he develops likes and dislikes and becomes attached to them. The Yoga Sutras calls it the predicate union (samyoga) which prevents the spiritual union.

Because of the physical and mental association of the seer with the objects, he feels happy when he is united with those objects which he likes, and suffers when he is separated from them. Such feelings trouble him more when rajas and tamas predominate in his consciousness. When sattva prevails, he may still experience suffering, but his mind becomes more flexible and stable as he develops contentment and detachment through virtuous living.

The consciousness of the seer is always pure and stable. It remains pure even when it is caught in the cycle of births and deaths. Modifications arise in the field of nature, especially in intelligence, due to the gunas. The seer perceives the objective world through the distorted field of his own mind. Because it is filled with impurities, he cannot see the objects clearly and suffers from the confusion of subject and object. Therefore, if the seer has to see things as they are without any relationship, he has to cleanse his mind and body and suppress the gunas.

The state of suffering

An ignorant person who has no discernment and whose intelligence is enveloped by impurities cannot discern truth about himself and becomes associated with he sees and experiences. He identifies himself with his mind and body and forms numerous positive and negative relationships with the objects which he enjoys. Because of his outgoing nature and focus upon the objects of the world rather than upon what is in him he becomes increasingly involved with the material world and suffers from duality, attraction and aversion, modifications (vrittis) and afflictions (klesas), etc. This is the perilous state which leads to karma, suffering and bondage. The following are few important features of the state of suffering which are mentioned in the Yogasutras.

Confusion of the subject and object: Due to the activities of the senses and the gunas the seer lacks discrimination and identifies himself with the seen (objects) rather than with himself (the subject) and with his ego or individuality.

Ignorance of the Self: Due to delusion or confusion, the seer identifies himself with his name and form (the mind and body) and fails to know that he is an eternal and indestructible Self.

Association with objects: Because of lack of discernment, the seer becomes involved with the perceptual or the objective world and becomes bound to it by assuming ownershp with the things which are impermanent and do not belong to anyone.

Duality: The seer experiences the duality of attraction and aversion amidst the pairs of opposites due to his attachment and outward involvement with the worldly objects through his senses, which leads to his downfall.

Impurities: The seer’s consciousness is pure. However, due to the gunas, it becomes enveloped by impurities which subject him to desires, attachments, egoism, delusion and bondage.

Citta Vrittis: Because of desires and attachments, the seer experiences modifications (vrittis) in his consciousness (citta) which makes him, restless, unstable and subject to death and rebirth.

Citta Vikshepas: Due to karma and other factors, the beings are subjected to five types of mental disturbances (vikshepas) namely disease, idleness, doubt, carelessness and laziness. From them arise suffering, dejection, weakness and irregular breathing.

Afflictions: Due to the impurities of the gunas, the seer experiences five types of afflictions (klesas) namely ignorance, egoism, desires, aversion and attraction. They keep the mind disturbed and outward bound.

Karma: Because of desires and association with the objects, the seer engages in desire-ridden actions and incurs karma, which binds him to the moral world

Samskaras: They are the subliminal impressions or strong mental impressions, created by desires and habits, which persist in the consciousness of the seer from one birth to another and influence his behavior. They act as obstacles to liberation.

Rebirth: Due to ignorance and delusion beings are subject to repeated rebirths until they achieve liberation. Bondage to the cycle of births and deaths is the worst suffering in itself, since the eternal, free Self is dragged into the mire of existential suffering.

The solution to suffering

From the above it is clearly evident that the problem of suffering arises mainly due to the presence of impurities in the consciousness (citta) of the seer. Therefore, it logically follows that suffering can be removed by cleansing the intelligence through transformative practices and by cultivating discriminative intelligence (viveka khyati) so that one can know truth from falsehood and truths about oneself. When the realization or true knowledge becomes firmly established in the mind, the seer is no more troubled by the presence or absence of objects. Through his discriminative intelligence he knows that he is different and distinct from what he experiences, and his essential nature is pure consciousness. He becomes convinced that he is what he is or what he always has been, not what he has or wishes to possess. Keeping this distinction always in his mind, he withdraws his senses from the sense objects and turns his attention into himself to stabilize his mind in the contemplation of the Self or Isvara.

However, the transformation which leads to such discernment does not easily arise. It requires a lot of effort because the root causes of suffering are not only gunas but also karma and past life impressions (Samskaras). As long as they are active, the seer cannot truly see the distinction between him and the objects he perceives. The eight limbs of classical yoga are meant for this purpose only. When they are firmly practiced for long, the lamp of knowledge shines (jnana dipti) in the consciousness and one cultivates discriminative discernment or the ability to see things as they are.

Therefore, to achieve liberation, the initiate has to first purify his mind and body through the practice of yoga. When his intelligence becomes pure, without the impurities of the gunas, he develops discernment and perceives things as they are rather than as part of him or in relation to him as his or of others. He stops seeing things through the prism of Prakriti or its aspects (the senses, mind, ego, and intelligence) and becomes the true seer (drshta), the one who sees without the distinction of the subject and object and without association or ownership. When it happens, he becomes free and no more troubled by ignorance, duality, attachments, desires, afflictions and modifications of the mind. By that, he also becomes free from karma and past life impressions as they are burnt in the fire of self-knowledge and pure intelligence.


It is an indisputable fact that people cannot be completely free from sorrow . There are no intelligent beings on earth who are without sorrow and afflictions. In the journey of life upon earth sorrow (vishada yoga) is the first stage and liberation (moksha) is the last stage. Sorrow manifests when a being is in association with things (samyoga) and liberation when one is comcpletely free and all alone, without a second (kaivalya). When the Self is drawn into the impermanance of the world and its objects, he experiences restlessness, sorrow and suffering.  Therefore, what we consider as true happiness in the world, samyoga or association with things, is truly the state of suffering, viyoga or separation from the Self. Knowing what is true viyoga or samyoga is the beginning of wisdom.

Unlike Advaita Vedanta which regards the world as a projection, the Yogasutras holds that the material world is not an illusion but real. The objects which the seer (Purusha) experiences in his consciousness are also real. They have no real connection with the seer. It is the seer who develops the connection due to lack of discernment and becomes involved with them. As his senses dwell among them, they leave strong impressions in his consciousness and create the illusion of a relationship whereby the seer comes to accept them as part of his life and activities, which lead to further consequences and result in his suffering and bondage. If he can stop seeing them as part of himself or as his own, his suffering will come to an end.

In other words, he has to break the bonds which he forms with the world and its objects through discernment, detachment, renunciation, sameness, purity and withdrawal of the senses. As the Yoga Sutras (2.15-16) declare, by removing the ignorance regarding the object and subject or the seer and the seen, the association or the conjunction between the two is removed, and the seer becomes absolutely alone (kaivalya), without any associations and entanglements with the objects. Thereby, he (the seer) develops uninterrupted discriminative awareness (viveka khyati) in a state of liberation.” That insight, says, Patanjali goes through seven higher states of awareness (prajna), the highest one being the purest state of Self-absorption (Samadhi).

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