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A Closer Look at Kleshas

“The five kleshas must not be regarded as petty foibles, weaknesses or minor failings or amusing defects which can be considered for a short moment and then dismissed and forgotten. They form the foundation obstruction in Twilight Yoga as in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.”
Dadaji The Exegetikos

Purusa and Prakrti

Patanjali’s work is often interpreted within a dualist perspective. While his position is not quite the same as say, Descartes or Augustine, it’s familiar enough to a western reader, rendering it simultaneously useful and potentially trapping. Central to the YS is the distinction between Purusa and Prakrti. Purusa is that which is experienced as the ‘highest reality’. It is the ‘essential nature’ (note my scare quotes here!) of humanity and is charactised as immutable, eternal and unchanging. Prakrti (roots: kr=to make, to do + pra=going forth) is all that the Self is not, i.e. the entirety of the cosmos – including our empirical, day-to-day existence (including mind, senses and elements). Prakrti is characterised by perpetual movement and transformation. For Patanjali, both Purusa and Prakrti are Real. For Patanjali, the Kleshas (translated by Feuerstein as causes-of-affliction) are basic motivational forces which underpin our ability to act, think, and feel. It is the Kleshas which are responsible for the fluctuations or agitations of consciousness – and Patanjali’s Yoga is primarily concerned with the stilling of these fluctuations.

These two categories of being are, in Patanjali’s scheme, independent, although he does say that Prakrti exists for the sake of Purusa. In his commentary on the YS, Misra uses the analogy of the reflection of the Moon in water. Although the Moon is not actually in the water, its reflection gives the impression of it being so. As the reflection of the Moon illuminates the water, so Purusa illuminates Prakrti. However, just as disturbances in the water distort of break up the clear reflection of the moon, so the agitations of fluctuations of Prakrti prevent the clear recognition of Purusa. So the ultimate goal of Yoga, within the YS is the seperation of Purusa from Prakrti.

For Patanjali, all suffering is the result of the entanglement of the Seer (Purusa) with the Seen (Prakrti). This is where the Klesas come into play.

The Mind & Yoga

Vyasa, in his commentary on the Yoga Sutras, uses the following metaphor:

The river called mind flows in two directions.

The two directions are “towards good” – i.e. towards discrimination (viveka) and salvation (kaivalya – “alone-ness”) and “towards evil” – i.e. worldly concerns (samsara). This metaphor can be applied in order to get to grips with the terms klista and aklista which Patanjali uses two broadly categorise all mental states. Those which lead to suffering and are caused by kleshas – Klista – and those which do not – aklista.

Our minds, in Yoga theory, are naturally drawn to samsara – and the continual modifications of mind – the Vrittis – are for the most part, afflicted (klista) so that ego-ism, attachment, fear, etc., dominate our mental life. Yet there are states (those which are aklista (non-afflicted) which oppose the fluctuations of the mind, and are oriented towards discrimination and salvation. Sadhana requires the cultivation of values such as friendliness, non-violence, desirelessness, compassion and so forth.


Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras kicks off with his definition of Yoga:

the cessation (nirodha) of (the misidentification with) the modifications (vrtti) of the mind (citta)

How one interprets this depends very much on how nirodha (cessation) is understood. Nirodha has been translated as “cessation”, “control”, “suppression”, “inhibition”, and “restraint” and some commentators have deployed the term as referring to a total negation or annihilation of mental activity.

Ian Whicher suggests that nirodha refers specifically to the worldliness-making effects of the vrittis (see below) on the practitioner’s consciousness, not the complete cessation of all vrittis. Whicher argues that it is not mind in toto which needs to be supressed, but specifically the misidentification of selfhood in terms of one’s material existence.

The goal of Patanjali’s Yoga (related to the Samkhya philosophy) is the overcoming of suffering via a process which is sometimes referred to as an “inverse movement”; a “process of involution” or a “withdrawal from manifestation.” The question Whicher raises is what does this “withdrawal” consist of. Some authorities write about this state as though the practitioner is stripped of all identity and detached from human relations.

Whicher notes that although Patanjali describes Prakrti (“the seeable”) in the context of the klesas (in that personhood is both grounded in, and bound by the primary klesa of avidya and its consequences); this does not necessarily mean that Prakrti herself is equated with affliction and bondage and should be therefore discarded. Nirodha, in Whicher’s view, involves a progressive “sattvification of consciousness” – a gradual letting go of one’s identification with the vrittis. But for Whicher, the vrittis do not “cease” but no longer obscure one’s perception of reality. Thus nirodha is a gradual expansion of perception until one’s “true identity” – Purusa – becomes self-evident.

Whicher’s reading of Patanjali breaks out of the dualistic formulations of other commentators and is more amenable to “Tantric” understandings of the relationship between self & reality.


Meditation, in these terms, allows us to become aware of the processes & fluctuations of the mind operate in terms of colouring _ “staining” our perceptions. Meditation is the process whereby the vrittis are stilled – allowing the light of clarity to shine forth.

The Five Klesas

“Nescience, I-am-ness, attachment, aversion and the will-to-live are the five causes-of-affliction.”

Yoga Sutras, II.3


The primary Klesa – the root from which the others spring from is Avidya – often translated as ignorance, although Feuerstein renders it as nescience, and Alex Wayman suggests “unwisdom”. Avidya is not merely ignorance of facts but a fundamental category error.


“I-am-ness is the identification as it were of the powers of vision and ‘vision-er’ (i.e. the Self)
Yoga Sutra, II.6

From Avidya springs the misidentification of the Self (Purusa) with mind (citta) becoming the assertive ego – which in turn gives rise to the remaining three Kleshas.


“Attachment is (that which) rests on pleasant (experiences).”
Yoga Sutra, II.7


“Aversion is (that which) rests on sorrowful (experiences).”
Yoga Sutra, II.8


“The will-to-live, flowing along (by its) own-momentum, is rooted thus, even in the sages.”
Yoga Sutra, II.9

This arrangement of the Klesas by Patanjali is not arbitary. Avidya is the primary klesa, which in turn gives rise to Asmita, which generates attachment, aversion and the will-to-live. Moreover, these five kleshas are interdependent, and it is out of these broad categories which subsidiary klesas arise – “modifications” – such as pride, greed, envy, and so forth. The five klesas are the primary motivations towards actions, thoughts, feelings. Without the klesas, we could not act in the world, and it is via the klesas that we construct and maintain our sense of identity. Given that they are a fundamental aspect of our ability to engage with our world, how do we escape being bound by them? Onwards ….

It is the klesas which drive the mind to worldly concerns and act to block the discrimination (viveka) which is essential for progress. Their action gives rise to an erroneous view of reality – which is the “ground-state” of humanity.

This schema is further elaborated by four qualifiers of the activity-states of klesas. Thus a klesa may be:

Klesas are best understood (IMO) not as consequences of action but as primary motivations


Vritti is translated by Feuerstein as “fluctuation” (other translations include “modifications”, “”whirlings”, “perpetual movements”, “swirling”, ) – vritti denotes the ceaseless mental activity whereby individual thoughts are woven together and form a web of ideas, concepts, beliefs and so forth. It is the vritti which cause distortions, bias and obscure the Self (Purusa).

Vrittis are often likened to seeds that germinate when conditions become favourable.

“The fluctuations are five-fold; afflicted or non-afflicted.”
Yoga Sutras, I.5

Patanjali states that Vrittis may be associated or imbued with klesas, or neutral. In sutras I.6 – I.12 he has more to say about the matter.

“(The five types of fluctuations are:) valid-cognition, misconception, conceptualisation, sleep and memory.”
YS I.6

These vrittis can be either mere innocent distractions or can reinforce the actions of the klesas.

“Valid-cognition (is based on) perception, inference and testimony.”
YS I.7

Pramana is sometimes translated as “right-knowledge”. This sutra relates to the process of cognition – i.e. the knower, the means of knowledge (pramana) and that which is knowable. However, Patanjali is here saying that Pramana is a vritti – a colouring or stain. Pramana, in this context, can be understood as the fixed beliefs and truths – the dogmas and ideologies, preconceived notions and prejudices that we cling to which reinforce false identification and ignorance. Pramana may arise out of perception or observation (i.e. the “evidence” of our senses), inference – logical, deductive or intellectual processes which act to confirm convictions, and testimony – from authorities, experts, scripture, etc. A useful example of this process in action is the belief that the world was flat, based on observation (perception) that the horizon was flat, followed by inference – that the Earth was flat, which was confirmed by the ruling ideologies (testimony).

“Misconception is erroneous knowledge not based on the (actual) appearance of that (which is the underlying object).”
YS I.8

Here, Patanjali highlights the problem of beliefs which arise out of mistaken perception – such as the often-seen example of the man who, in the dark, mistakes a piece of rope for a snake.

“Conceptualisation is without (perceivable) object, following (entirely) verbal knowledge.”
YS I.9

Conceptualisation ranges anywhere from day-dreaming to abstract thinking – one of the most powerful obstacles to liberation is our continual formation of thoughts and ideas and our incessant conceptualisation of reality in terms of language contructs.

“Sleep is a fluctuation founded on the presented-idea of the non-occurrence (of other contents of consciousness).”
YS I.10

Remembering is the non-deprivation of the experienced object.”
YS. I.11

“The restriction of these (fluctuations) (is achieved) through practice and dispassion.”
YS I.12


Feuerstein translates Samskaras as “subliminal-activators”. In Yoga theory, any state – vritti – that arises in mind leaves behind it a trace – samskara – which in turn, can provoke or reinforce a similar state. In yoga literature one sometimes encounters the notion the perpetual wheel of modifications and traces – vritti samskaara ani’sam cakram. Samskaras are latent tendencies and propensities that are “unwatched” – i.e. “unconscious”. Samskaras are sometimes described in two categories – Savija – “with seed” and Nirvija – “without seed.” We might think of them as habitual tendencies or unconscious motives.