II.5 अनित्याशुचिदु:खानात्मसु नित्यशुचिसुखात्मख्यातिरविद्या

anityāśuci-duḥkhānātmasu nitya-śuci-sukhātma-khyātir avidyā
anitya-aśuci-duḥkha-anātmasu nitya-śuci-sukha-atma-khyātiḥ avidyā

“Avidyā [not-knowing] is naming permanent what is impermanent, pure what is impure, happy what is painful, and the self for what is not-the-self.”

The translation of avidyā as “not-knowing,” though literal, is perhaps too tame for what Patañjali describes here. Avidyā, as defined in II.5, is a kind of denial. The person suffering from avidyā insists on finding permanence in impermanence; asserts purity in what is mixed; returns to the painful seeking pleasure; most remarkably, chooses to identify with a false self.

There is a poetry to the phrasing of II.5—Patañjali gives us two lists. The first—the impermanent, the impure, pain, the not-self—is a compound construction set in the locative case. An English approximation of this effect would be: “In the place of the impermanent, the impure, pain, not-the-self.” The second list is governed by the word kyātiḥ, which means naming, calling, labeling: “Naming permanent, pure, happy, the self.” Each element of the second list refers back to an element of the first: “Avidyā is naming permanent what is impermanent, pure what is impure, happy what is painful, and self for what is not-the-self.”

We all desire the elements of the second list. We bump up against the first list. We search for what lasts, what is pure, what feels good, what is genuine. It is human to seek who we are. But where are we looking?

Avidyā is not blank ignorance. It is settled action. We name things. We decide. We put labels on our experiences and we think we know. We think we know what is good and bad. We think we know what safety and what danger is. We think we know what will last. And we think we know who we are.

What if the process of moving toward vidyā, toward lessening the everyday suffering of the afflictions, is to know we don’t know? Can we resist labeling, hold back on asserting conclusion, establish a state of inner spaciousness and foster–not psychological fixedness—but resilience?

For example, for a long time, I have been suspicious of the concept of “pure.” I do not like how the term has been used in puritanical and sexual contexts, and I do not like what has been understood to be feminine purity. I was born in the 1950s, and the feminine ideal of the little girl who was sweetness and acceptance, pure because not obstreperous or stubborn—or mad—made a big imprint on my sense of self. At some point in my development, I chose not to be “pure,” and I came to identify with a goodness that was itself mixed, various, full. My sense of Woman grew with the years.

Today, I am interested again in “pure.” What might I like to use that word for? There are things, moments, that I might like to call “pure.” As mixed as many of my intentions are, there is, too, an impulse that it is useful for me to describe as “pure.” It is for me to locate that. It is for me to value it. Because it informs the choices I make.

B.K.S. Iyengar has been known to say, “Seek to be a learner.” How do I learn what the real self is? How do I learn where permanence lies? Can I find this answer in a book—even in this wonderful old book that is the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali? Patanjali has an answer to that. No. It is not in books. Practise to learn. Bring your whole self present, your senses, your heart, your mind. Be open.

If your everyday practice is to open to all your emotions, to all the people you meet, to all the situations you encounter, without closing down, trusting that you can do that — then that will take you as far as you can go. And then you’ll understand all the teachings that anyone has ever taught.
—Pema Chodron, Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living

How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?
—William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell


“Patañjali speaks of ignorance as a condition of mistaken identity. The transient or fleeting is regarded as Eternal, the impure or the compounded is regarded as Pure, that which is unreal is regarded as Real. In the course of time, man builds up an acquired nature. This is the product of mind’s reactions and resistances. The acquired nature assumes such importance that it completely overlays the original nature….To regard the habitual nature as the original is avidyā or ignorance.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, commentary on II.5

“These statements about Ignorance are challenging. There are various ways to explain them. They are mostly so revolutionary that they require the use of paradox. The Lord Jesus explained it well. He said that if you build a house on sand, it will founder. If you build it on a rock, it will stand firm. This means that a life must be built on a foundation of reality that is firm. Unfortunately, what seems firm, that is to say the things of life that offer us security, wealth, possessions, prejudices, beliefs, privilege, and position, are not solid at all.” —B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, p. 192

•Are you aware of false labels you have placed on people or things?
•Do you have a tendency toward certainty? Has this ever been an obstacle?
•What does purity mean to you? Is it a term you use when considering your own actions or intentions, in relating to others, or in choosing right action?
•What foundational beliefs have you built your life on?


adjective in compound

impermanent, not lasting (a-, “not,” + nitya, “perpetual, eternal”)


adjective in compound

impure (from a , “not,” + śuc, “to shine, glow”)


adjective in compound

painful (from dus, “bad,” + kha, “space”)


masculine noun, 7th case plural, “in”

not-the-self (a-, “not,” + ātman)


adjective in compound

perpetual, eternal


adjective in compound

pure (from śuc, “to shine, glow”)


adjective in compound

happy, pleasant (from su, “good” + kha, “space”)


masculine noun in compound

the self, the true self, inner being, spirit, soul


feminine noun, 1st case singular

naming, identifying (from khyā, “to tell, to name”)


feminine noun, 1st case singular

not-knowing (from a-, “not,” + vid, “to know, perceive”)

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