Kleshas and the Yoga Sutras

Chapter Two of the Yoga Sutras, the Sadhana Pada are instructions to our practice. They give us the road map to liberation. The mental practices of the Sadhana Pada are used to remove kleshas (the mental obstacles) that hold us back.

The explanations of the kleshas begins in Book Two, or Chapter Two, the Sadhana Pada. In this part of the Yoga Sutras the actual practice of yoga is spelled out clearly. Section 2.1 tells us the practice of yoga includes plans to purify, study spiritual books, and surrender to God. In Section 2.2 we learn why yoga should be practiced: to remove obstacles and attain Samadhi.

“The goal of yoga is not to obtain something that is lacking: it is a realization of an already present reality.”

The practice of asana and pranayama (yoga postures and yogic breathing) are the physical practices that we use to teach the body self awareness and control. Asana like backbends can be used in overcoming kleshas.

Understanding mental practices, such as removing kleshas is the cornerstone to yogic philosophy. Removing kleshas, or obstacles to liberation, peace and freedom is the start of the practice outlined in Book Two of the Yoga Sutras.

In 2.3 of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali lays out the five Kleshas:

    1. Ignorance
    2. Egotism
    3. Attachment
    4. Hatred or Aversion
    5. Clinging to Life

The kleshas are described as obstacles at the root of human suffering. Following 2.3 in the Yoga Sutras are a description of each of the five kleshas in detail.  Sri Swami Satchidananda in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali explains the significance of the order. He points out that each klesha tends to build on the next. With ignorance of the self comes egotism. Because of egotism there is attachment to things enjoyed by the ego. When the things we are attached to are taken away, or if they do not get something we become angry and experience hatred or aversion for those who get in our way.

The following are three different translations of the 2.3 Sutra:

Avidyasmita raga dvesabhinivesah klesah

  • Ignorance, egotism, attachment, hatred and clinging to bodily life are the five obstacles. -translation Satchidananda in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
  • The causes of suffering are not seeing things as they are, the sense of “I,” attachment, aversion, and clinging to life. -translation Chip Hartranft in The Wisdom of Yoga, Stephen Cope, Appendix B The Yoga-Sutra in English
  • These are ignorance (avidya), ego or pride, which acts as an imposter of the seer (ahamkara-asmita), attachment (rarga), aversion (dvesa), and anxiety or fear of death (abhinivesa), as if life were eternal. -translation B.K.S. Iyengar in Core of the Yoga Sutras

B.K.S. Iyengar’s statement that ego or pride acts as “an imposter of the seer” speaks to the idea that the ego is a mirror to the seer. It is a copy of the real thing. The ego and the seer and separate. The ego is related to an identity that we choose for ourselves. The seer looks on with dispassion and detachment, being unidentified with the self or ego. We are not who we think we are. Our true nature is not the same as the identity we have taken on as a representation of ourselves. The difference here between seer or true self and the ego is an important distinction.

Chip Hartranft makes the point that ignorance is “not seeing things as they are.” This suggests the true self might know the difference! How do we discern how things truly are? How does ignorance development a faulty sense of “I”? How does egotism promote our ignorance? How does egotism blind us to what is true and real?

Sri Swami Satchadananda breaks down the Sanskrit for us:

Avidya = ignorance; asmita = ego sense, egoism, I-ness;

raga = attachment; dvesa = hatred

abhinivesah = clinging to bodily life; klesah = obstacles, afflictions

Kleshas are referred to as obstacles. They are also considered “afflictions” or what we might call character flaws. The Yoga Sutras explain that kleshas keep us from experiencing peace and enlightenment, Samadhi. Without yoga we cannot overcome the kleshas.