Greatest thinker ever: Patanjali
And so: the winner. The Hannibal Blog‘s search for what makes great thinkers great, and what does not, took ten posts. My nominee is Patanjali.
Those of you who have been checking in regularly might have had your suspicions that something yogically-themed would come up again. But do not make the mistake of thinking that Patanjali is “only” about Yoga! Yes, he wrote (or so we think) the Yoga Sutras, which is, along with the Bhagavad Gita and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the three great texts of Yoga. But what he said–with masterly economy, in 196 aphorisms that form a single logical thread (sutra)–qualifies not only as the earliest but also as the greatest thinking yet on the human mind.
And that says it all: This is about the mind, or psyche in Greek. So he was, with the Buddha (who might possibly have been a contemporary), one of the first psychologists. That said, the ancient Indians put our psychologists to shame.
We Westerners have one word for mind (not counting breath or spirit, which the ancients conflated), just as we have one word (give or take) for snow. The Yogis had hundreds of words for mind, just as the Eskimos have many words for snow. That is because they observed it with so much more nuance. For example, the Bhagavad Gita is about a war between the five Pandava brothers against their cousins, the one hundred Kaurava brothers. The five Pandavas represent the five positive minds, including Arjuna, who represents buddhi, or clear intelligence. The one hundred Kauravas represent all the negative minds (fear, anger, envy,….)
Stillness and …
Let’s cut to the chase. The first sutra simply says Now we start this exposition on Yoga. But in the second sutra Patanjali essentially says it all. (Talk about simplicity!) It is famous, so here is the Sanskrit:
Yogah cittavrtti nirodhah
This is the E=MC² of the mind. It means (using Iyengar’s translation):
Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness.
There is a lot of important precision in that slightly clunky-sounding phrase, but we would be oversimplifying only slightly by reducing it to my phrase:
Yoga is a still mind
A reader who grasps all the ramifications could stop reading there. Most of us do not. So Patanjali elaborates…
The trouble is that the mind is almost never still. It moves, pulled by thoughts as wild as bucking broncos. And this is what confuses and torments us. Patanjali’s greatest (and most overlooked) contribution is his analysis of these naughty ones that we call thoughts or emotions.
You know them all: anger, fear, envy, greed, lust, anxiety and so on. They show up and take your mind captive. You think they are you, and you suffer and make others suffer.
Patanjali proves that they are not you. You can, with the techniques that he describes, let them go. A naughty one shows up in your mind stage left, you say, ‘Oh Hi, Mr Anger’ and label him, then allow him to exit again stage right. And you keep doing that.
Over time, you make a discovery. Who is saying Hi and doing the labeling and letting go? It can’t be Mr Anger. So anger is not me, it’s just some schmuck passing through. See you!
I am therefore something else. Patanjali calls this I the seer. As the seer sees more clearly, the mind comes to rest.
And for all those who are still with him at that point, he sketches out how to unite (=Yoga) with this seer in order to feel whole and free. Non-trivial, as I’m sure you’ll agree.