II.31 एते जातिदेशकालसमयानवच्छिन्नाः सार्वभौमा महाव्रतम्

ete jāti-deśa-kāla-samayānavacchinnāḥ sārva-bhaumā mahā-vratam
ete jāti-deśa-kāla-samaya-anavacchinnāḥ sārva-bhaumāḥ mahā-vratam

“These are universal, unlimited by birth, place, time or circumstance. They are a great vow.”

The yamas (ethical observances) are–this sūtra tells us–a great vow. We might think of them as a seal, a bond that acknowledges relationship between ourselves and our world. Rohit Mehta emphasizes that this bond is not imposed by an authority, but comes from a “realization of self-responsibility.” Vimala Thakar, likewise, says the Sanskrit word vratam (vow) carries with it a sense of a “choiceless” choice. Once the truth is experienced, once we know ourselves to be in connection to all living things, then the heart, as it were, makes its own bond.

Patañjali emphasizes the universality of the ethical observances–they are sarva bhauma, “at all levels of being or ground.” They relate to all life. No circumstance–birth, geography, time–not culture, gender, or race–affects their importance or renders them irrelevant. They are, in short, a tie that binds all.

One meaning of the word yoga is “connection.” The practice of yoga connects us inwardly–to our musculo-skeletal frame, to the rhythms of the organic body, to the electrical impulses of our nervous system, to to our imagination, thought, psyche–to our soul. With this inward unfolding comes awareness of the web of life that supports us and that we participate in. The yamas make explicit that what we do in the world matters.

Rachel Carson, the great naturalist and progenitor of the modern ecological movement, said, “In nature, nothing exists alone.” We depend on the rich balance of soil, water, plant, animal life for our welfare. In the 1950s, at a time when most Americans were dazzled by the powers of new technology and all the good that they promised–the end of war, the mastery of disease and hunger–Carson raised a clarion call about how we were affecting the natural world. She recognized that the relation of life to its environment was a complete system, and that we disturb its balance at tremendous risk. A half-century later, as we face irreversible climate change, her words are prophetic: “This is an era of specialists, each of whom sees his own problem and is unaware of or intolerant of the larger frame into which it fits. It is also an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged.” (Silent Spring, p.12.)

Silent Spring communicated the science of connection, the biological truth of inter-relatedness. It led to a ban on DDT and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the passage of the Clean Water Act. It galvanized the awareness of a generation.

Carson was ill in the years that she worked on this classic book. In a letter to a close friend, she tells of the difficulty of writing and of the imperative she felt to finish: “I could never again listen happily to a thrush song if I had not done all I could.” (Letter to Dorothy Freeman, January 1962.) She died two years after the publication of Silent Spring.

“To listen happily to a thrush song”– this says so much about Carson and about her deep-held belief that experience of the natural world sustains us. She writes about the education of children:

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years…the alienation from the sources of our strength. ― Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

Yoga has powerful tools to help us come out of alienation. It connects us to our natural being, to nature around us. It connects us to the source of our strength. May it also help us know our responsibility.


“The external disciplines, or yamas, are the way we yoke ourselves in relation to the world. This includes not only objects but also beings. Thus, the yamas guide our actions toward the benefit of all life.” –Chip Hartranft, The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali, p. 33

Vratam does not mean a vow intentionally, purposefully taken and followed or practiced. … I cannot translate–I would love to give you the nuances of that beautiful word, which is generally used to describe marriages that take place–the fusion, the blending that take place–out of choiceless acceptance. As in love, in vratam there is a choiceless acceptance by your whole being of the truth that was perceived….If there is resistance, if there is an imposition from outside, then it cannot be called a vratam. It is not a vow, it is not an imposition, it is not an imitation, a conformity. Please do see this–otherwise, the whole charm of the yamas would be lost upon us. Once you see them as absolute truths, because of the organic wholeness of Life, the Intelligence, the sensitivity within you accepts those truths choicelessly. They become a way of living, they become incorporated into your way of living, which becomes a holistic way of living.” –Vimala Thakar, Glimpses of Raja Yoga, p. 26

“Only he who is completely free can be truly disciplined. Without freedom, discipline is an imposition whether from outside or inside. Often a person says that he does not accept any discipline that is imposed by an external authority, but such a person forgets that the so-called internal authority is also a product of conditioning factors. The inner authority is really a product of social and cultural forces that impinge upon an individual either from society or from the ideological group to which one belongs. Freedom demands a complete elimination of authority, external as well as internal. It is only then that the individual, being on his own, takes complete responsibility for all that he does.” —Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, pp.139-41

•What helps you know you are part of a web of life? (Do you take time to go outside? Do you visit a park, the country, bodies of water?)
•In what ways does “the common good” have meaning for you?
•What are you committed to?
• What guides you in your practice? An outer authority? An inner authority? No authority? What guides you in your relationships?


masculine pronoun, 1st person plural



feminine noun in compound

birth, circumstance of birth (from jan, “to give birth”)


masculine noun in compound

place (from diś, “to point out”)


masculine noun in compound

time (from kal, “to drive”)


masculine noun in compound

circumstance, condition (from sam-, “all,” + i, “to go”)


masculine noun, !st case plural

irrespective of, unlimited by (from an-, “not,” + ava-, “away,” + chid, “to cut”)


masculine adjective, !st case plural

relating to the whole earth, universal (from sarva, “all,” + bhu, “to be”)


adjective in compound



neuter noun, 1st case singular

vow (from vṛ, “to choose”)

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