III.17 शब्दार्थप्रत्ययानामितरेतराध्यासात् सङ्करस्तत्प्रविभागसंयमात् सर्वभूतरुतज्ञानम्

śabdārtha-pratyayānām itaretarādhyāsāt saṁkaras tat-pravibhāga-saṁyamāt
śabda-artha-pratyayānām itara-itara-adhyāsāt saṁkaraḥ tad-pravibhāga-saṁyamāt

“Word, object, and thought–piled one upon the other–get confused. From saṁyama on the distinctness of these, knowledge of the sound of all beings.”

Language shapes thought. This is why I study Sanskrit. The different words used, their distinct implications and connections, open up meanings not in English. To study another language is to see in a different way.

In today’s sūtra, Patañjali reflects on language, a recurring theme in the Yoga Sūtras (see I.9, I.42, and I.49). This is not accident. To penetrate inward, to come to know self better, is to come to see how language works. Ultimately, in practicing direct observation, one comes to see the limit of what one has seen–how mingled, confused (expressed here by saṁkara, which literally means “mixed together”) most observation is. Patañjali puts it this way: śabda (word), artha (object), and pratyaya (thought) overlap, one on the other (itara-itara) and so intermingle. Despite this, he continues, these three are distinct. Observe that.

Naming things helps us to know them. But it is not the end of knowing. There is more observation to be done after the word is said. Indeed, Patañjali suggests here, observation may be a kind of listening. Look feel listen to the vibrations, to the object, to the world.

Sound and vibration are mystical entities in Indian tradition. Creation, it is said, began with the word atha, and the sacred syllable OM is considered to contain all the sounds of the universe. Thus, when Patañjali says that saṁyama on word, object, and thought bring knowledge of the sound of all beings, he alludes to deep mystical knowledge, an understanding of the nature of things, the hum of life.

It is beautiful to consider that in conversation with our friends, we might listen past their words to their hum. That we might attempt to “hear” an animal. Do I speak dog? Not really. Yet my dog and I understand each other. It is possible, really, that he is the more attentive one.

In hatha yoga, the element of space is related to sound. Through āsana practice, we come to experience space in and around us in a physical and tactile way. This can help us become more sensitive to vibration. To the touch of sound.

Today’s sūtra is an important one. It demands that the yoga practitioner question assumptions and the status quo. I have been writing in recent months about the crises we face on a political and global level. Examination of assumptions in a society-wide way is critical–I do not exaggerate–for our survival. I was excited to hear, this past week, an interview with Gina McCarthy, recently appointed by President Biden to be the first United States National Climate Advisor. She is the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency and has worked as a health advocate and protector of environmental well-being her entire career. In this interview, McCarthy assesses what the word “government” means to us today. What does the word conjure up? On right-wing talk radio, it is a pejorative term. Yet government is what we as citizens make. Government is how we govern ourselves. The way we come together for the common good. Gina McCarthy explains:

“Since the Reagan administration there has been a concerted effort to say that government is dysfunctional, it can’t work, and as a result a lot of government right now is dysfunctional and isn’t working. There are so many ways we can have the kind of future we all want as long as we are willing to make government work for us.”

Gina McCarthy emphasizes that individual solutions will not solve the environmental nor social justice crises we face: she says we must work in community, whether that is local, state, or federal government. We must demand that government become active in encouraging, through regulation and enticement, the solutions we already have. What prevents us from unleashing these solutions? McCarthy suggests that our sense that “there is nothing to be done” has been created in us:

“People with money seem to be able to mess up our perception of reality–not just science but our reality. I don’t see any way that gets us out of this without people becoming more active, much more vocal, us demanding that we be served, not just the wealthy. … The young people get it. They know it. They’re demanding it.” *

The solutions, says McCarthy, are not painful. They are fun and good. They will make a better world. Listen to the hum of that world.

*From the podcast How to Save the World, hosted by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Alex Blumberg,  Jan. 14 episode: “Meet Your New Climate Czar.”


Śabda, when manifest as the audible aspect of a word, is, in and of itself, simply an arrangement of sounds or phonemes, which contains meaning of some object, artha, that produces an impression on the mind of the listener…. Therefore, the word is one thing, the meaning of the object itself something else, and the idea or knowledge of the object something else again.” –Edwin Bryant, The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, commentary on III.17

“Concentrate separately on the word, the meaning and the object, which are mixed up in common usage; understand the speech of every creature. When we utter the word ‘elephant’, we find that the word, the meaning and the object are mixed up; the word lives in air, the meaning lives in mind, the elephant lives by itself.”

“Very often there is a gap between the words we use and what these words really mean, because our inner and outer experiences color them. Something that sounds like a compliment might really be expressing jealousy that the speaker seeks to hide even from him or herself. The first stage, then, is prolonged observation of the possible gap between our own words and what we are really saying, given our situations, our experiences, and our emotional and mental states. It is a matter of knowing what we say, why we say it, and in what circumstances we say it.” –Bernard Bouanchaud, The Essence of Yoga, commentary on III.17

“Speech is the most powerful means of communication. And yet much misunderstanding is created by the spoken word resulting in unhappy relationship. If one could go behind the verbal meaning and cease projecting one’s own meanings on words that are spoken by the other then life would be much simpler causing no strain in relationship. But how is this to be done? Only by an act of communion, which means noting the movement of one’s own mind when one listens to the words uttered by others.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, p. 316

• Has yoga helped you become a better communicator? Can you understand someone who speaks another language? How well do you listen to animals? To yourself? How tuned into your environment are you?
• This sūtra asserts that there is a distinction between words and the objects they describe. What is an example of an incident when words prevented understanding?
• What are the sounds of a healthy world?
• Do you have access to the sounds of nature where you live?


masculine noun in compound

sound, word


masculine noun in compound

meaning, purpose


masculine noun, 6th case plural, “of”

thought wave, movement towards something (prati-, “towards,” + i, “to go”)


pronoun in compound

one upon the other


masculine noun, 5th case singular, “from”

superimposition (from adhi-, “over,” + as, “to cast”)


masculine noun, 1st case singular

confusion, mixing together (from sam-, “with,” + kṛ, “to do”)


pronoun in compound

of these


masculine noun in compound

separation, distinctness (from pra- + vi- + bhaj, “to divide”)


masculine noun, 5th case singular, “from”

meditation, integration of the senses, regulation of citta, direct observation (from sam + yam, “to check, restrain, regulate”)


adjective in compound



neuter noun in compound

that which exists, any living being, element (from bhū, “to be”)


neuter noun in compound

sound, the cry of animals, the song of birds, hum of bees (from ru, “to make a sound, cry, roar, sing”)


neuter noun, 1st case singular

knowledge (from jña, “to know”)

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