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The last of the mental hooligans: YSP 2.3

2.3 avidya asmita raga dvesha abhinivesha pancha kleshas


Bouanchaud: The causes of suffering are ignorance, conscious of “I” (egoism), attachment, repulsion and fear.

Desikachar: The obstacles are misapprehensions, confused values, excessive attachments, unreasonable dislikes and insecurity.

Swami J: There are five kinds of coloring (kleshas): 1) forgetting, or ignorance about the true nature of things (avidya), 2) I-ness, individuality, or egoism (asmita), 3) attachment or addiction to mental impressions or objects (raga), 4) aversion to thought patterns or objects (dvesha), and 5) love of these as being life itself, as well as fear of their loss as being death

Although this is the last commentary on the definitions of the five mental hooligans, aka the kleshas, it won’t be the last we see of them. About half of Chapter 2 deals with the ways and means by which this quintet hijacks our mental processes and colours our perceptions of reality. Over the past couple of days, we’ve looked at asmita (ego), raga (attachment) and dvesha (aversion). The last two to look at are abhinivesha and avidya.

Abhinivesha is the fear of death, and by extension, the mother of all our fears. Afraid of flying? The dark? Heights? Dogs? Snakes? Wide open spaces? Underneath all that is the root fear – afraid of dying. It’s also a particularly handy feature of the human psyche. It’s our survival instinct and this idea is found in the literal translation of the word. According to the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Abhinivesha literally means “moving towards like life too much” abhi – to move towards; ni – near; vesha – life. Again, we meet with the subtlety of yoga philosophy – everything is a matter of degrees.

Every day, we assume some kind of risk to life and limb. Most of us have driven in cars and we counter the inherent risks of being in a steel box whilst hurtling down a stretch of pavement at 100 kilometres an hour by taking some basic precautions, such as wearing a seat belt, driving on the correct side of the road and making sure the brakes are serviced as required. In this case we are using our fear of death in an intelligent manner. We acknowledge the potential dangers and prepare accordingly. Abhinivesha also keeps most us from walking off cliff ledges, loitering inside burning building, drinking things clearly marked “Poison” and swimming next to signs marked “Caution – Rip Tides”. You can appreciate the inherent usefulness of this klesha.

That said, abhinivesha can also paralyze us. Anxiety, in all its forms from generalized sense of dread to full on panic attacks and phobias, is abhinivesha. Instead of enhancing our survival, it can restrict our lives and make us miserable. I know a woman who is severely limited in her life by her phobias. She’s afraid of elevators which means some buildings or parts thereof are ‘off-limits’, including the surgical suite at a hospital. She was literally too frightened to be wheeled into elevator to be transported to surgery and her surgery had to be delayed. She’s afraid of dogs, which limits who she can visit, and of flying, which curtails her ability to travel and it goes on. I hasten to add this woman isn’t stupid by any means. She’s bright and competent in all respects but rationality, logic, and facts don’t hold up very well in the face of overwhelming fear. The fear can consume us very quickly and chase away any ‘sense’ we might have had up until then. Fear is a very powerful emotion and it can stupefy any one of us in an instant.

Now for the grand-daddy of all the kleshasavidya (ignorance). But ignorance of what? The answer, according the philosophy of yoga, is ignorance of our own true nature. We see ourselves as being little independent single beings, when in fact, we’re all interconnected and inter-related. What I do impacts you and what you do impacts me.

According to Dr Swami Shankardev Saraswati, there are two levels of avidya. One is plain old garden variety ignorance of facts and general knowledge about how the world works. It’s kind of like me and electricity. I really don’t get it. The more potent variety of avidya is the “lack of knowledge of who we are” – infinite, unlimited and indestructible beings of consciousness. We screw up because we imagine ourselves to be limited, finite and destructible. It’s this second level of avidya that is the klesha. And once again, like most everything else in yoga, this is a matter of degrees. According to Dr Saraswati’s commentary, it’s this fundamental sense of ignorance, this “darkness of the mind” that propels us to seek knowledge. Our ‘not knowing’ makes us feel impotent and at the mercy of things we cannot control. We are driven to push the boundaries of our knowledge, to learn, to seek out new things, to explore. Both as individuals and as a species at large, we are restless in our search for knowledge and understanding. It’s one of our primal drives. That is why we are forever trying to sweep away the veil that keeps us from seeing clearly.

It’s easy to see how the ancient philosophers saw avidya as the field in which all the other kleshas grew. If our foundational problem is that we forget we are infinite, unlimited and indestructible beings of consciousness, (I love how he phrased that), then of course we cling to life. Of course, we are attached to our physical bodies. Of course, we eschew that which is unpleasant. And last, of course we are adamant about controlling our separate “I”, because the thought that I’m somehow dependent on the rest of you is just too terrifying to contemplate. If I’m a solitary creature, then I have control. Just conceptualizing, let alone acknowledging interdependence is sometimes a real struggle, and certainly one I still work with on a daily basis.

So what’s the solution? This second-level spiritual avidya isn’t cured by upgrading to a new graduate degree. Have no fear, though. Chapter 2 is entitled Sadhana Pada – the practice or method – for a reason and the method for putting aside our ignorance is found in the very first aphorism of this chapter.

Tapas svadhyaya ishvara pranidhana kriya yogah: Yoga in the form of action has three components: 1) the bodily disciplines of purification, 2) self-study in the context of the teachings and 3) letting go into the creative source from which we emerged (tr. Swami J).

Done with the kleshas yet? Not by a long shot, but as I mentioned in the introduction, this is the end of the definitions of what they are. This is a huge concept in yoga philosophy and Patanjali spends a great deal of time on the subject. Fully half of this chapter refers back to these concepts. We haven’t seen the last of these hooligans by a long shot.

Thanks for reading and Namaste,







About Kate MacKay

I'm a certified Viniyoga teacher, in Fredericton, NB. I was a 9-1-1 operator and emergency services dispatcher for 22 years. Surprisingly, the two worked well together, or as I liked to put it, from the sublime to the ridiculous -- all in a day's work. I'm currently off work as a result of a stress-induced cardiac condition that's thrown a few crimps in my lifestyle. I'm not actively teaching yoga in the classroom right now and probably won't for several more months. That said, this blog is one of the forms of practice I can do and I thank you for joining me in this exploration of all things yoga.

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