Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Patanjali Yoga Sutras: Atha 3

Continued from Patanjali Yoga Sutras – Atha 2

Atha means when man has realized he is all periphery with no centre.

One of my former management students sent me a mail a while back. He had a wonderful job, he said. It was not too demanding, considering the pay they were giving him, which was to the tune of about a lakh and a half a month. He had everything he could desire for at his workplace. He had recently married a beautiful young girl, an MBA like himself. They loved each other, his parents loved him, his in-laws loved him, everything was fine. But with all that he was not happy with his life, he wrote to me. He felt something was missing. He felt a deep sense of meaninglessness – a kind of existential angst.

This is what happens when your life has no deep core. Modern society, modern civilization, takes away that deep core from our lives and gives us everything at the periphery. The periphery is wonderful, but there is no centre.

Abraham Maslow speaks of the eight dimensions of human needs in his revised theory of needs and motivations [the original theory had only five]: physical and physiological needs, security needs, belongingness needs, esteem needs, cognitive needs, aesthetic needs, self-actualization needs and self-transcendence needs. In the case of an educated, employed young man like the student who wrote to me, his physical and physiological needs, he security needs, his belonging needs, his esteem needs and even his aesthetic needs are well taken care of. But when it comes to the other three dimensions, he is perhaps poorer than his predecessors.

Our younger generation today frequently take ‘working hard and partying harder’ as their motto. And the work is often not really meaningful, though it is productive and pays extremely well. And the parties provide for very superficial satisfactions. Intimacies are of very tentative nature – frequently of the kind Eric Jong wrote about in her blockbuster Fear of Flying. They do not give meaning to life. True, in the case of the young man who wrote to me his belonging needs are satisfied because of his satisfying relations with his wife and family and perhaps with his colleagues. But when it comes to his deeper meaning needs – cognitive needs – there was a big question mark there.

Victor Frankl, once an inmate of Nazi concentration camps for Jews and later the founder of logotherapy made an interesting observation – the people who perished in the concentration camps were the ones who had lost meaning in life and the survivors were invariably the ones who found meaning in life even under the unimaginably cruel conditions of the concentration camps. Man needs meaning to live by, as deeply as he needs anything else, if not more deeply than most other things.

Barring the case of a few individuals, our society and civilization, our lifestyle, does not satisfy our meaning needs.

And along with meaning needs, most of our self-actualization needs are left unfulfilled.

And when it comes to the highest of our needs, self-transcendence needs, in its truest sense, our society and our jobs do very little to satisfy them.

For these reasons, we live at the periphery, instead of leaving at the centres. For it is only when you have a meaning to your life and when you achieve self-actualization and self-transcendence that your life has a centre. Otherwise it has only peripheries.

What modern civilization does is deny man his centre and give him lots of peripheries.

It is like watering the leaves of the plant and leaving the roots hungry.

Yoga is for people who have realized this truth about modern life and want to live at the centre, from the centre.


Here is a story I love.

A young little bird used to fly so beautifully that the sky would be moved. One day he came across a man who sold termites. “Give a feather, take a termite,” the salesman said. And there was a scheme – buy one, get one free. The bird gave the man a feather, bought a termite, got one free. He ate the termites, and he liked their taste. The next day the salesman came and the bird gave another feather and got two termites. Soon the bird grew addicted to eating termites. One by one, he kept giving his feathers.

The blue of the sky soon became a rare thing for him. Somehow he could manage to fly up to the trees.

And then came a time when all he could do was hop on the ground.

One day he came across a huge termite hill. He thought he would give back two times the termites he had eaten and buy back his wings. Maybe three or four times, if needed. He saw the man who sold termites passing by. When he offered termite again, the bird said: “Enough. I have had enough of termites. You take your termites back and give back my feathers. In fact, I will give you three termites for a feather. Or even four.”
The man who sold termites said: “I sell termites for feathers; I don’t buy termites paying feathers.”

It was too late. The young bird had forever lost his freedom. He had given away his sky.

Yoga is for people who realize they have lived their life like the little young bird. It is for those who realize that they have been giving away their feathers for termites. It is for those who realize when you give your feathers away for termites, you lose the sky.


Richard Bach tells a story in his bestselling book Illusions. Here is the story narrated in Biblical language.

Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river.

The current of the river swept silently over them all – young and old, rich and poor, good and evil, the current going its own way, knowing only its own crystal self.

Each creature in its own manner clung tightly to the twigs and rocks of the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current what each had learned from birth.

But one creature said at last, “I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.”

The other creatures laughed and said, “Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed across the rocks, and you will die quicker than boredom.”

But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks.

Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more.

And the creatures downstream, to whom he was a stranger, cried, “See a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! See the Messiah, come to save us all!”

And the one carried in the current said, “I am no more Messiah than you. The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.”

But they cried the more, “Saviour!” all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone and they were left alone making legends of a Saviour. “

Yoga is for the potential messiah who has realized he can let go and enjoy the journey and it is far better to let go than cling to the twigs and rocks at the bottom of the river.

It is also for the creatures who bound by unthinking habits cling to the twigs and rocks at the bottom of the crystal river. But of course, they have to realize the futility of their clinging, the absurdity of it, the total meaninglessness of it.

In fact, it is they who require yoga more than the messiah.


To be continued on Patanjali Yoga Sutras Atha 4


  1. It seems you have stopped the series after 3 parts. Please continue it, I need to understand the basics of Patanjali Yoga.

  2. I agree - I am studying the Yoga Sutras and I enjoy the depth you have gone into this one word - Atha - Now the beginning . . . .

    Thanks for sharing these musings