II.39 अपरिग्रहस्थैर्ये जन्मकथंतासम्बोधः

aparigraha-sthairye janma-kathaṁtā-sambodhaḥ
“Stable in non-acquisitiveness, [one] understands the why and wherefore of birth.”

Parigrah (pari-, “around,” + grah, “to grasp”) is to hold around, to embrace, to encircle, to fence in–to own. A traditional meaning of aparigraha was the state of having no household, no servants, no wife. For Gandhi, aparigraha was, simply, “non-possession.” For most interpreters of Patañjali, though, the principle does not refer to having no possessions but to one’s attitude about the possessions one has; it suggests a resolve to live in a simple way and not seek more than one’s needs. It is translated “non-avarice,” “greedlessness,” “non-grasping,” “non-possessiveness.” It is an attitude toward having, toward being. I have translated it as “non-acquisitiveness.”

To be non-acquisitive is no automatic or easy thing–especially in our culture. Capitalism clamors at us to work hard to be more and have more. We esteem those with money and/or prestige and/or influence. Non-acquisitiveness is a willingness to have less. But, even then, in what manner do we have less? How do we hold on to what we have, how jealous are we of our holdings, how fearful that they may be lost? What if the possession we hold most dear is our reputation–how others see us? Are we defensive and reactive about that?

A practice of gratefulness can be effective in confronting a compulsion to acquire. To recognize what I have, this day, not in the future, and to say thank you, can break a sense of inadequacy, emptiness, hunger.

Poet Mark Nepo writes:

There is no tomorrow, only a string of todays. Still, like most of us, I was somehow taught to dream forward, to fill the future with everything that matters: Someday I will be happy. When I am rich, I will be free. When I find the right person, then I will know love. I will be loving and happy and truthful and genuine then.” –Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

I recently talked with a friend about a lifetime expectation, dimly assumed, lurking beneath the surface, that some day in the future, we would arrive. We would be more knowing, more settled, circumstances would be easy. We are both in our mid-60s, and by many measures, the future is now. To our dismay, we don’t feel we have arrived.

Rohit Mehta describes dreaming forward to the future as the mind’s attempt to create psychological continuity, “to project its own conclusions on life.” My desire to arrive can certainly be seen this way. My narrative about the way things are supposed to be is a story of success/failure, right/wrong, good/bad, reward/punishment. I would like to make a satisfying conclusion.  “Life has its own purpose,” says Mehta.

The nature of things is ongoing movement. The settled situation, gathered goods, established family or social network–they all transform. This truth is, at least partly, what Patañjali means when he speaks of janma-kathaṁtā-sambodhaḥ–understanding the why and wherefore of birth. Janma is birth. Katham means “how,” and the suffix -tā makes an abstract noun. Kathaṁtā is the state or nature of how, in other words, why. Sambodhaḥ is a complete knowledge, not piecemeal, not even mental–one might describe it as the knowledge of the heart.

Patañjali suggests that understanding comes when we let go, let go of fixed ideas, accumulated possessions, narratives of success and failure. B.K.S. Iyengar says that aparigraha is the most subtle of the yamas. Indeed, to not “grasp round,” to not “encircle” and “hold on”–and yet to care–that requires great surrender.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

–Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art”



“When one is steady in living without surplus possessions and without greed, one realizes the true meaning of one’s life, and all life unfolds before one.”–commentary on II.39 by B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali

“The more one owns, the more one needs to protect it. Accepting more than is necessary and acquiring more and more goods, knowledge, relationships, and mystical states, clutters the mind and keeps it from grasping the source of things and the motivations and reasons for our life.” –Bernard Bouanchaud, The Essence of Yoga, p. 123

“It may be noted that aparigraha is not non-possession, but non-possessiveness. To understand the distinction between the two is absolutely essential. Non-possession is comparatively easy for it involves the discarding of things that one may have. While non-possession may imply the giving up of the home, non-possessiveness indicates the rendering of the mind completely homeless. So long as the mind clings to a conclusion and acts from that centre it has not been rendered homeless….When man acts from no centre of the mind, then truly he is enabled to know the how and why of life. The true purpose of life is revealed to one only when one refrains from projecting one’s own concept of end and purpose. Life has its own purpose.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, p. 170

• What do you tend to hold on to? What do you feel you cannot live without?
• Do you accumulate things, people, or accomplishments?
• Are there any ideas or beliefs that you are rigid about?
• How does projecting your own purpose on to a situation prevent you from understanding it?


masculine noun in compound

non-acquisitiveness (from a-, prefix that negates, + pari-, “around,” + grah, “to grasp”)


neuter noun, 7th case singular

stability, steadfastness (from sthā, “to stand”)


 neuter noun in compound

birth (from jan, “to be born”)


feminine noun in compound

wherefore, the nature of how, the why (from katham, “how,” + –, suffix that makes abstract noun)


masculine noun, 1st case singular

full knowledge, complete understanding (from sam-, “with, all,” + budh, “to know”)


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