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Yoga & the 5 Kleshas

21 March 2013

Directly following Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra (book II) which describes Kriya Yoga, he explains the five main reasons we are bound, these are known as the Kleshas: [1]

  • 1. Ignorance (Avidya)
  • 2. Ego (Asmita)
  • 3. Attachment to Pleasure (Raga)
  • 4. Aversion to Pain (Dvesa)
  • 5. Fear of Death (Abhinivesah)

These five afflictions are often depicted as a tree. Avidya is the trunk of the tree, and the other four Kleshas sprout from it. The Samkhya emphasis on viveka, knowing the real nature of the universe, is echoed in Classical Yoga’s emphasis on avidya, or ignorance, as the main affliction we suffer. Destroy avidya and all the other afflictions go away.

Asmita is the ego. The problem with ego is not the fact that we have one; it is useful and even necessary to have an ego in order to function and live. The problem arises when the ego believes it is the Self. If all we do is in service of the little self, our life will be sorrowful. When we serve our higher Self, liberation becomes possible.

According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra there are five Kleshas (aka afflictions, colorings) described (Book II-3); those Kleshas, like clever sorcerers, can knock you off balance, sidetracking from your quest for spiritual evolution.

1. Avidya (Ignorance): The inability to see things for what they really are.

Yoga Sutra (Book II-4): “Ignorance is the breeding place for all the others whether they are dormant or attenuated, partially overcome or fully operative.”

(Book II-5): “Ignorance is taking the non-eternal for the eternal, the impure for the pure, evil for good and non-self as self.”

Vidya means spiritual knowledge. The prefix ‘A’ changes the word into its opposite; without (or absence of something). Thus Avidya means the absence of spiritual or Self knowledge.

The following is an excerpt from Gregor Maehle’s commentary on Yoga Sutra II.24: “… Ignorance is the belief system that results from false knowledge (viparyaya). This false knowledge makes us believe that we are the body, that are our emotions and thoughts. Viparyaya is defined in sutra I.8 as wrong knowledge without foundation in reality. Reality is that which is permanent. Returning to the metaphor of the TV screen, we can note that, however many pictures are displayed on the screen; none will ever stick to it. New pictures will always replace them. Once the film is over, the screen will be empty. The only thing permanent here is the screen, which means the screen is the reality, whereas the pictures are only fleeting images superimposed on the screen. Although there exists a certain proximity between screen and images, both will remain forever separate. The screen won’t take on the quality of the images, nor will it altar them.

“Similar is the case with the seer and the seen. There is a certain proximity between our true nature as the immutable consciousness and the constantly changing seen, which is the body, emotions, thoughts, and so on. However, in reality they touch as little as do a screen and the images displayed on it.”

2. Asmita (Ego): The sense of “I-am-ness” or the tendency to identify with your ego.

Yoga Sutra (Book II-6): “Egoism is the identification of the power that knows with the instruments of knowing.”

The problem with ego is not the fact that we have one; it is useful, even necessary to have an ego in order to function and live. The problem arises when the ego believes it is the Self. If all we do is in service of the little self, our life will be sorrowful. Only when we recognize and serve our higher “Self” does liberation become possible.

From a spiritual perspective; identification with the ego denotes considering oneself to be distinct and/or separate from others (and the Divine) due to identification with the physical body and impressions (Samskaras) in various centers of the subtle (energetic) body. In other words, the ego-self is allowed to lead our life by us maintaining the false notion that our existence is limited to our five senses, our mind and intellect, and identifying with them to various degrees.

Gregor Maehle refers to the ego in yoga the following way: “In yoga we first learn to observe the body. Once this observation is established, we know that we are not the body but an observing agent independent of the body. Otherwise we could not observe the body. The next step is that we start observing our thoughts. Eventually, from being established in that observation, we know that we are not our thoughts, since we can detach ourselves and observe them like the thoughts of a stranger. Who are we, then, if we are not the body and not the mind (manas, the thinking principle)? The agent that claims ownership of body and mind is called ahamkara — ego. Its function, which is the erroneous commingling or mixing of seer (pure consciousness) and seeing (the mind), is called egoity or I-am-ness (asmita).”

3. Raga (Attachment to Pleasure): raja is wanting, craving, passionate attachment to beings and things. It’s the flame of desire that causes addiction to pleasure and even negative emotions.

Yoga Sutra (Book II-7): “Attachment is that magnetic pattern which clusters in pleasure and pulls one towards such experience.”

Raja can take the form of possessiveness, ownership, liking, attraction etc. It also indicates attachment to people, things, and ideas. The sense that “This is ours,” “This is mine.” It’s the most common cause of quarrels, violent conflicts, and even war. In a broader scale it’s often expressed as race, nationality; my country, my money.

In the book “Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy,” Gregor Maehle writes that: “…desire, (raga), and with it all addictions, is a clear form of misapprehension or ignorance (avidya). A drug addict might say ‘I just can’t help it; I need the drug!’ In this statement, the needing of the drug, which is the hankering after a remembered pleasure, is consciously connected with the faculty of I.”

Raga and the following Klesha (Dvesa) are often considered opposite sides of the same coin.

4. Dvesha (Aversion to Pain): The aversion to pain, this aversion emerges from previous experiences of pain and suffering. It can create a quicksand like cycle of misery and self-hatred that sucks you under and suffocates your will to evolve spiritually.

Yoga Sutra (Book II-8): “Aversion is the magnetic pattern which clusters in misery and pushes one from such experience.”

Oftentimes we can easily become subconsciously driven to avoid previously painful experiences. Our desire to protect ourselves limits our options in life, clouding our ability to see and think clearly. We tend to mistake the person, situation or object that caused us pain with the painful experience itself. When this happens we end up going to great lengths to avoid situations that we are afraid of; regardless of whether they are physical, emotional, or spiritual. Fear and hatred are the inevitable downfalls of excessive aversion.

*Note on both Raja and Dvesha: These excessive ‘attachments’ and ‘aversions’ that are being examined here are very different from the intelligent, careful and well-considered choices we are also capable of making when our perspective changes through the practice of Pratipaksha Bhavanam (a method recommended by Patanjali that helps us catch these destructive and distracting thoughts, and redirects our minds back toward the Yogic path). By cultivating opposite perspectives (by actively cultivating thoughts of the opposite nature) whenever a destructive thought arises, we increasingly expose ourselves to new, uplifting options. It can even be as simple as formulating the opposite thought.

The path of Yoga is one that helps us become aware of our unconscious thoughts and actions; gradually moving toward a life full of consciously chosen thoughts and actions. Each posture and each breath enables us to discover a fresh opportunity to distinguish between skillful, conscious decision making and subconsciously driven motivations of fear and desire.

5. Abhinivesha (Fear of Death): The fear of death (or a clinging to life).

Abhinevesha is the last of the five Kleshas. Georg Feuerstein says of this Klesha: “It is the impulse towards individuated existence and as such is a primary source of suffering.”

Yoga Sutra (Book II-9):“Flowing by its own energy, established even in the wise and in the foolish, is the unending desire for life.”

Many believe that this fear is not limited to physical death; it is the fear of the cessation of the “ego-I” narrative (Asmita) that we as individuals are “creating” during our lifes’ experience. We cling to this “ego-I” narrative because of ignorance (Avidya) of the impermanence of the mind body experience by perpetrating the misperception of ego (Asmita) as being who we are. This subsequently dilutes our focus and interferes with our ability to experience the spiritual freedom that is the goal of Yoga.

Gregor Maehle’s commentary regarding Abhinevesha: “…Vyasa deduces from the fact that all beings are afraid of death that they have experienced death and thus life before. The intensity to which all beings cling to life can only be explained through accepting that we have all experienced death as a process to be avoided at all costs.

“Shankara elaborates on Vyasa‘s argument thus: ‘Unless happiness (pleasure) had been experienced no one would pray for it. Without past experience of pain, there would be no desire to avoid it. Similarly, though the pangs of death have not been (in this life) experienced by a man either directly or by inference, the fact of his lust for life points to experience of death previously, just as there can be no experience of birth unless there has been birth.’”

Final thoughts: If this article seems like deep philosophical stuff, it’s because it is. Keep in mind that yogic philosophy developed over thousands of years of time. During most of that time there were some outstanding thinkers and philosophers in India that had nothing else to do but contemplate these larger questions concerning life and death and where we as humans beings fit into the equation.

When you are able to make peace with everyone in your life every day, then there should be no attachment, no regret, and no unfinished business. To quote the motivational speaker, Zig Zigler: “Live every day like it is your last, and one day you will be right.”

We will see a list similar to the 5 Kleshas in Buddhist philosophy called  “the 5 Hindrances.”

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