Luminosity and Yoga

The universe revealed through a meeting with the Light
contrasts with the profane Universe—or transcends it—by
the fact that it is spiritual in essence. The experience of Light
radically changes the ontological condition of the subject by
opening him to the world of the Spirit . . . [A] meeting with
the Light produces a break in the subject’s existence, reveal-
ing—or making clearer than before—the world of the Spirit,
of holiness, and of freedom.
—Mircea Eliade, History of Religions
Light, most especially the camphor flame, is thus an extraor-
dinarily potent condensed symbol of the quintessentially
Hindu idea . . . that divinity and humanity can mutually
become one another.
—C. J. Fuller, The Camphor Flame

Mircea Eliade wrote extensively about the centrality of light as the constant religious image appearing throughout the many traditions he studied from around the world over a period of decades. In reading the Yoga Sūtra, the core text of the tradition that defined Eliade as a leading scholar of the history of religions, themes of light and luminosity pervade the text, peering out in each of the book’s four sections. This chapter will follow Patañjali’s treatment of light, lightness, and clarity as a constant root metaphor for the process of yogic attainment. In the process, I will address a fundamental persistent question that arises in regard to Yoga’s approach to the lived world. Can Yoga as a philosophical system be seen as providing an avenue for active engagement with the world without abrogating its teleology? Can nirodha (restraint) and kaivalyam (aloneness or isolation) be seen as compatible with an ongoing relationship with the fluctuations of the mind?

One generally approaches the Yoga tradition by looking at its self-definition: yogaś-citta-vṛtti-nirodha.1 This can be translated as “Yoga is the restraint of the mind’s fluctuations,” leading to an overall philosophy and practice that emphasizes control and perhaps even suppression. Following this experience, one is said to reside in one’s own nature2, an allusion to puruṣa, the eternally free, ever-present witness consciousness. Though this remains the definitive explanation of Yoga, I would like to suggest that the living application of this experience can be understood by examining the places in Patanjali where he discusses the “shining forth” or discernment of puruṣa or witness consciousness, referred to in each of the four sections (pādas) of the text. For most scholars, this event underscores the so-called dualistic world abnegating nature of the Yoga system. It is generally supposed that the world of active engagement ceases in order for the puruṣa to be discerned. In this chapter, building on themes introduced in chapter 2, we will explore how the Yoga Sūtra presents a much fuller and alluring account of the process of lightening one’s karma than is generally acknowledged, a path that inherently affirms the world while seeking a state of transparency and luminosity.


The Yoga Sūtra, as with most Indian philosophical texts, announces its purposes3, defines its telos4 [as given above], and then outlines its theory of knowledge and reality.5 The description of actual Yoga practice does not begin until sūtra I:12, where Patañjali emphasizes ongoing practice (abhyāsa) and the cultivation of dispassion (vairāgya). In the Sāṃkya system of Īśvarakṛṣna, only knowledge (jñāna) leads to liberation. Patañjali puts forth repeated practice of Yoga techniques combined with dispassion as the first of many effective tools for attaining the state of Yoga. Dispassion (vairāgya) is said to lead to (or proceed from, as will be discussed) the discernment of puruṣa: “That highest [release]—thirstlessness for the guṇas—proceeds from the discernment (khyāti) of puruṣa.”6 Here we see a theme that occurs throughout the text: first seeing things as no more than combinations of guṇas, then ascending from heaviness (tamas), through passion (rajas) to lightness (sattva) and then finally dissociating oneself even from this lightest state of purity. At that moment, the goal of luminosity has been attained: prakṛti is held in abeyance and, the witness consciousness alone stands.

Patañjali describes four other instances in the first pāda of this clarified witness consciousness being revealed without insisting that the world itself dissolve. The first involves the Brahma Vihāra, the famous ethical observances of friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity borrowed into Yoga from the Buddhist tradition.7 It could be argued that this “clarification of the mind” (citta-prasāda) refers only to an intermediary state, that this is merely a preparatory place to higher states of consciousness. However, if we look at this state in the context of the Pāli Canon, we can see that this is not the case. During his lifetime, the Buddha proclaimed that five hundred of his disciples achieved liberation or nirvana and declared them to be arhats. Identical with the formula given in the Sāṃkhya Kārikā, each arhat declared, “I am not this, there is no self, I have nothing.” Subsequent to this attainment, the Buddha described each as dwelling in the “Brahma Vihāra,” the abode or sanctuary of the religiously accomplished. Richard Gombrich writes that this was an assertion of the comportment of the enlightened ones, not merely a method of meditation.8 I would suggest that this shows a process of active engagement whereby “clarification of mind” becomes an epithet for the applied and active insight undertaken on the part of the accomplished yogin in daily affairs.

The next reference to luminosity can be found in Yoga Sūtra I:36: “Or having sorrowless illumination.” Though brief, this attainment indicates that a flooding of light (jyotis) has occurred, through which sorrow has been expelled. Again, the Buddhist allusions in this passage are clear, as well as an indication of a state of being or awareness that does not nihilistically deny the redeemability of that which can be perceived.

This brings me what is perhaps my favorite sūtra, one that to my estimation has been both overlooked and misinterpreted:9 “[The accomplished mind] of diminished fluctuations, like a clear jewel assuming the color of any near object, has unity among grasper, grasping, and grasped.”10 This sūtra juxtaposes two key images: the state of mind as having diminished fluctuations and the quality of a clear jewel. First, the linkage between diminished fluctuations and citta vṛtti nirodha must be acknowledged. This sūtra defines the several processes for controlling the mind and achieving various forms of samāpatti (unity) and samādhi (absorption). This can be seen as not different from the process of nirodha, due to the direct reference to the diminishment of fluctuations. Yet this does not lead to the elimination of the mind or objects or the processes of perception. Instead, a specialized form of awareness—dare we say puruṣa—is revealed in which the separation between grasper, grasping, and grasped dissolves. Though Vyāsa suggests that this refers to three different foci of awareness, I would prefer to place the emphasis on the term samāpatti. In this state of unity (samāpatti), ego, senses, and objects lose their separation from one another revealing a state akin to kinaesthesia, a state of being whelmed or absorbed—in short, moving into the depths of mystical at-one-ment. The world itself does not cease; merely the barriers that fence the self from world and world from self disappear. This verse, embedded innocuously at the three-quarter point, defines and, in my thinking, gives high profile and importance to the processes of samādhi (savitarkā, nirvitarkā, savicārā, nirvicārā) that follow.

The image of clarity recurs at the end of this sequence:
In skill with nirvicārā
Clarity of authentic self occurs.
There the wisdom is ṛtam bearing11

Ṛtam refers to the peak Vedic experience wherein the purposes and intent of sacrifice (yajña) are fulfilled, resulting in a moment of perfect equipoise.12 Earlier I mentioned the ascent from tamas through rajas to sattva. One has ascended from unity with gross objects, first with thought and then without thought, to unity with subtle objects, presumably the vāsanās or residues or saṃskāras of past action that condition our personality and behavior. As one gains facility in this state of unity, “clarity,” earlier associated with the Brahma Vihāra and the notion of an authentic or somehow purified or elevated self arises. Again, this does not state that the world has been discarded or disengaged. In fact, the reference to ṛta proclaims that this accomplishment leads to a wisdom through which the flow of life (the goal of the Vedic philosophy) may reach its fullness.


Patañjali summarizes the Sāṃkya system in verses 15–28 of the second section or sādhana pāda. In the process, he emphasizes the purpose and function of the manifest world, the realm of the seen. In a nearly direct quote from the Sāṃkhya Kārikā, Patañjali writes, “The seer only sees; though pure, it appears intentional. The nature of the seen is only for the purpose of that (seer). When its purpose is done, it disappears; otherwise it does not disappear due to being common to others.”13 First, I want to establish the relationships among the process of seeing, the seer, and luminosity. According to the Sāṃkhya scheme, a correspondence exists between the subtle elements, contained within the body, the sense organs manifested through the body, and the gross elements (mahā bhūta-s). The nose and smelling correspond to the earth, the mouth and tasting correspond to water, and the eyes and seeing correspond to light or tejas, the element that illumines and extends warmth. In the Puruṣa Sūkta, the two eyes correlate to the sun and the moon. Hence, in the Sāṃkhya system, the function of the seer is to literally cast light upon the things of the world. Although this may seem to be a childlike inversion of how we have come to understand physical principles, this perspective nonetheless reveals certain wisdom: there can be no world that has meaning apart from one’s perception of it. This does not deny the reality of the external world but underscores the importance of perspective and relationality in any endeavor or circumstance.

According to the psychology of Sāṃkhya and Yoga, the predispositions of karma exist in the seen, not in the seer.14 Hence, though the limited ego claims to be the owner of personality, in fact personality and action can only emerge due to the presence of what the Chāndogya Upaniṣad refers to as the “unseen seer.” Everything that can be perceived is perceived for the sake of that seer, but, mistakably, the limited self assumes that the world exists for the sake of its own limited gratification, hence ensnaring the individual within its limitations. When the seen sees that “she” is not the seer, that is, when the purpose of the realm of activity is seen as providing experience to the unseen seer, then the “seen” and all the attachment it connotes disappears. One stands alone in silence, liberated. This takes place through a process of “unfaltering discriminatory discernment,” a term that receives further mention in the third and fourth sections,15 as will be discussed later.

Images of light appear in the two places in the second pāda: the accomplishment of purity (śauca) and the performance of breath control (prāṇāyāma). Purity, of all the disciplines (yama) and observances (niyama), holds the distinction of bringing one to the point of perfect sattva. It is considered to be an apt preparation for “the vision of the self” and generates a more philosophically laden description than any of the other nine disciplines or observances: “From purity arises disassociation from one’s own body, noncontact with others, purity of sattva, cheerfulness, onepointedness, mastery of the senses, and fitness for the vision of the self.”16 This discussion of purity begins with a description of the process of turning away from physical attraction, the most obvious aspect of tamas. With increased purity, one gains a host of benefits: increased sattva, a cheerful disposition, enhanced focus, mastery of the senses (which receives fuller treatment in the third section), and finally “fitness for the vision of the self.” This last attainment places one again in the realm that links vision, the luminous sense, with the self.

A double entendre can be found in each of these references. On the one hand, vision of the self can refer to looking at and seeing the self, which, as we will see in IV:19, cannot happen because the self can never become an object. That leaves us with the alternate reading, the other part of the double meaning: construing the compound here as a genitive tat puruṣa compound, translated as “the self ’s vision.” The practice of purity holds the allure of the physical realm in abeyance, allowing for the seer to simply see. This accomplishment is the “vision of the self,” referring to a clarified process of perception rather than the notion that the self is seen as a fixed substance.

The next of the eight limbs to include reference to light and luminosity occurs in the discussion of prāṇāyāma. The fourth state of prāṇāyāma, somewhat similar to the description of purity above, entails “withdrawal from external and internal conditions.”17 With this inwardness comes an intensification of sattva. Elliptically referring perhaps to visionary experiences articulated in the later Haṭha Yoga texts, Patañjali writes, “Thus, the covering of light is dissolved.” This “enlightening” experience then allows for enhanced power and concentration: “And there is fitness of the mind organ for concentrations.”18 In the prior two chapters we discussed experiences that arise from the joint application of breath control and the cultivation of inwardness. In those sūtras, breathing exercises set the stage for an illuminative experience.


Splendor and radiance can be found in the description of Patañjali’s eighth limb, samādhi, in the third or Vibhūti pāda. Echoing the earlier reference to the clear gem and to the point or moment where the purpose of the seen has been completed, Patañjali writes, “When the purpose alone shines forth as if empty of own form, that indeed is samādhi.” When the purpose—that is, all things exist for the sake of providing experience to the seer—is known, then a crystalline luminosity, a seeing-things-as-they-really-are takes place. And from the mastery of this, again recalling the description of wisdom in I:48, arises the “splendor of wisdom.”19 This level of samādhi clearly allows for a world engaged through the aegis of wisdom.

Nine additional sūtras in the third section include references to light and illumination. Applying saṃyama on the sun brings “knowledge of the world.”20 By gazing upon that which the sun illuminates, one gains an understanding of the world. Moving into interior reflection on the cakras, concentrating on the highest cakra, “the light in the head” brings about “vision of the perfected ones,” the siddha-s or invisible helpmates to those who practice Yoga. The next reference, in the midst of a description of various fabulous attainments and powers, brings us back to the philosophical purpose of the text: “When there is no distinction of intention between the pure puruṣa and the perfect sattva, there is experience for the purpose of the other (puruṣa); from saṃyama on purpose being from the self, there is knowledge of puruṣa.”21 Again “knowledge of puruṣa” begs to be interpreted as “puruṣa’s knowledge.” Strictly speaking, puruṣa cannot possess anything, even knowledge, but this allows a process of alluding to an elevated state of consciousness without allowing anyone to claim it.

In the descriptions of light as associated with saṃyama, Patañjali employs three images in quick succession. The first states that the power of breath, specifically “mastery of the middle breath” yields radiance (jvalanam).22 This might refer to the physical result of being well oxygenated, when, for instance, one’s cheeks become rosy after a brisk walk or some form of physical exertion. The second image talks about concentrating on the lightness of cotton (laghutūla), which allows one to move through space (ākāśa-gamanam).23 By identifying with something as flimsy as cotton, one takes on its qualities of free movement. The third image talks of moving beyond even the body toward the “great discarnate” (mahāvideha).24 This reference links to the earlier discussion on rising above the manifest aspects of prakṛti.25 In the first mention of the discarnate (videha), a desire to become again involved with prakṛti lingers.26 In contrast, in the third section, this concentration on the discarnate results in the destruction of the covering of light (prakāśa-āvaraṇa-kṣayaḥ),27a much more positive assessment of this yogic accomplishment. This also refers back to the prior pāda, where the practice of breath control also removes the covering of light.28

The remainder of the third section discusses how one’s sattva increases successively. First one masters the elements (bhūta-jaya).29 Then one attains perfection of the body (kāya-saṃpad).30 Next one rises above the body to gain mastery over the sense organs (indriya-jaya).31 This results in mastery over that which causes the world to become manifest, the latent aspect of prakṛti (pradhāna-jaya).32 At this level, as in the stage of nirvicāra samādhi mentioned in the first section, one is able to control the impulses (saṃskāras) that normally condition human craving and the pursuit of desire. Hence, as in the Upaniṣads, where one rises from the food-made body to the mind-made body to the emotion-body and finally attains the self, one first masters the relationship with the external elements, then one’s body, then one’s senses, including the mind, and gains control over the emotions. However, the final attainment requires an even higher level, defined as the “discernment of the difference between sattva and puruṣa.” The final verses of the third section nicely underscore the need for increasing levels of lightness, until one reaches kaivalyam:

Only from the discernment of the difference
between sattva and puruṣa can there be
Sovereignty over all states of being
and knowledge of all.33
Due to release from even this,
in the destruction of the seed of this impediment,
arises perfect aloneness (kaivalyam).34
There is no cause for attachment and pride
upon the invitation of those well established,
because of repeated association with the undesirable.35
From saṃyama on the moment and its succession,
there is knowledge born of discrimination.36
Hence, there is the ascertainment of two things that are similar,
due to their not being limited (made separate) by differences
of birth, designation, and place.37
The knowledge born of discrimination is said to be liberating,
(inclusive of) all conditions and all times, and nonsuccessive.38
In the sameness of purity between the sattva and the puruṣa,
there is perfect aloneness (kaivalyam).39
Though I will discuss this portion of the text at length in chapter 15, let me paraphrase the trajectory of this important description of the liberative process. Liberation hinges on discerning the difference between one’s best purity and the modality of pure witnessing. One cannot hang a shingle on one’s purity; this leads to passion, attachment, and pride; one becomes susceptible to flattery. As one sloughs off all identification from moment to moment, one develops the critical skill of dwelling in a state of constant discrimination (khyāti). Hence, one keeps a constant vigil and can discern the difference between the purity attained in the state of videha-prakṛti-laya, the most rarefied form of sattva that occurs within the realm of prakṛti, and the witness. The two are so close. Prakṛti has resisted all attempts to act on prior compulsions (saṃskāras) and move again in the realm of attachment and passion. In dwelling in that perfect state of abeyance one becomes outwardly indistinguishable from the witnessing consciousness, but the voice that remains within prakṛti would continue to deny any such connection. Later commentators (Vācaspatimiśra, Vijñānabhikṣu) referred to this relationship in terms of reflection (pratibhā), indicating that the world reflects itself to the witness in its pure state, without any interfering patina of sullied interpretation.40


The process of inverse evolution (prati-prasava) leading to increasing levels of luminosity is described yet again in the fourth section of the Yoga Sūtra. The first concept that indicates a special relationship between the purified sattva of prakṛti and the puruṣa is the concept of “prayojakam,” the initiator. Patañjali describes this function of prakṛti as “the one mind among many that is distinct from activity.”41 This would probably be the intellect or buddhi in its most subtle form of sattva, which we saw above as associated with kaivalyam.42 All mind is in some sense active but this “one mind” is like puruṣa and hence pure. In the next verse, Patañjali, again elliptically, refers to an unspecified something that arises from mind that, despite its being “born” and hence in the realm of prakṛti, he nonetheless refers to as pure (anāśayam): “There, what is born of meditation is without residue.”43 This reflects the theme in I:50: “The saṃskāra born of it obstructs other saṃskāras.” This state of purity does not obliterate the world but in some way perhaps transforms it.

The next verse pertains to notions of color, which can only be perceived through the sense of sight, and hence require some form of illumination:

The karma of a yogin is neither white nor black;
that of others is threefold.44

This verse discusses what the Jains refer to as the “leśyas” or combinations of karmic impulses that obscure the luminosity (the energy, consciousness, and bliss) of the soul, referred to in Jainism as “jīva.” In Jainism, these colors vary from black to blue to red to yellow to white; the perfected Jaina (siddha) rises above all colors in the state referred to as “kevala.” Patañjali refers to the varieties of color as mixed and, like Jainism, suggests that the perfected one goes beyond all coloration.

Continuing the theme of colors, Patañjali later suggests that the attitude one takes toward objects depends upon the “anticipation” or projection of the mind that perceives any given object. Appealing to one of the classic proofs given in the Sāṃkhya Kārikā for the existence of puruṣa, he states that all these changes are due to the “changelessness of their master, puruṣa.”45 To complete this argument about the relationship between that which is objectively seen and the seer, he states that the object does not possess revelatory powers but becomes illumined only through the presence of the seer. Only through the seer can the world be known, although the seen, particularly in its mistaken assumption of ego identity, seeks to claim all experience. Patañjali advances this argument as follows:

An object of the mind is known or not known,
due to the anticipation (of the mind) that colors it.46
The fluctuations of the mind are always known
due to the changelessness of their master, puruṣa.47
There is no self-luminosity of that (citta-vṛtti)
because of the nature of the seen.48

The seen can never see itself. Light ultimately comes from the highest source of illumination, which stands separate, even aloof, illuminating the things of the world through its gaze. When one sees that one does not really see, then the compulsion to grasp and cling to the ego identity ceases. Patañjali writes that “the one who sees the distinction discontinues the cultivation of self-becoming.”49 Having observed and understood that the world appears to be as one assumes it to be because of the structures of one’s mental conditioning, one gains the liberating perspective that allows a retreat from the self-generating status quo.

The conclusion of the Yoga Sūtra describes this process of heightened awareness as a gradual letting go of being invested in the continuation of the world as self-construed. This results in the cryptic description of a liberated state, defined as the “cloud of dharma samādhi.” This has been interpreted, appropriately, in many ways. On the one hand, the term dharma can be seen in light of its Buddhist counterpart, as a constituent of existence. This usage can also be found in the only other passages where Patañjali uses the term. In III:13 and 14, Patañjali discusses dharma as the nature or essential quality of a thing and says that things take on their particular character due to the nature of the dharma. In the level of dharma-megha samādhi, this essence or nature has been purified and lightened to the point where rather than manifesting in the shape of a concrete reality, it remains as evanescent as the water vapor in a cloud, indicating that it perhaps has been resolved to its most subtle or sattvika form. In terms of the technical Jaina usage of ‘dharma,’ it has attained its most refined state of movement. And in the traditional, nontechnical Hindu sense of ‘dharma,’ this state might indicate that all unvirtuous activities have been overcome and that one dwells only in a dharma characterized by the sattva-guṇa. The following verse seems to support this final interpretation: “From that, there is cessation of afflicted action,”50 which causes Vyāsa to state that one has attained living liberation, the only reference to this cherished state in his entire commentary.

In either case, the progression from gross to subtle culminates to completion in this last verse of the Yoga Sūtra. The process of outward manifestation (pariṇāma) has been reversed, called back to its origin. The inertia that leads to tamas has been reversed through the practices of Yoga. The guṇas, even sattva itself, have performed their function of providing experience and liberation for the seer, the puruṣa, the original source of illumination, although, paradoxically, puruṣa never actively illumines. This returns the Yoga practice to the state referred to in the third sūtra of the first pāda, the state of standing in svarūpa. This is not, however, a static state. The conclusion of the Yoga Sūtra does not require the cessation of all luminosity but instead avers to the notion of an ongoing presence of consciousness, referred to as “citi śakti,” the power of higher awareness. The Yoga Sūtra does not conclude with a negation of materiality but with a celebration of the ongoing process of dispassionate yet celebratory consciousness.

Indeed, in [that state of] reflection,
for the one who has discriminative discernment
and always takes no interest,
there is the cloud of dharma samādhi.51
From that, there is cessation of afflicted action.52
Then, little is to be known
due to the eternality of knowledge
which is free from all impure covering.53
From that, the purpose of the guṇas is done
and the succession of pariṇāma concluded.54
Succession and its correlate, the moment,
are terminated by the end of pariṇāma.55
The return to the origin of the guṇas,