Prashant Iyengar writes that “life commences with karma” (P. Iyengar, 2013, p. 12). The process of re-birth stems from actions, their effects (karma), and natural causes stemming from the interplay of the three gunas.(Sargeant, 1994). Patanjali examines this subject throughout the yoga sutras and, in the kaivalya pada, details what determines the nature of re-birth, and how it can be overcome.
2.12 explains that past karma affects re-birth due to the kleśas. (Kleśamūlaḥ karmᾱśayaḥ dṛṣṭᾱ adṛṣṭa janma vedanῑyah.) The kleśas are the mental and emotional afflictions that motivate our actions. They are “the root and material cause for fruition of karma” (P. Iyengar, 2013, pg. 41). If we are not cognisent of the effect of the kleśas, karma falls into habit patterns and tendencies that we are unaware of either at a mild, moderate, or intense degree. This is due to avidyᾱ (not knowing). Past actions can, unknowingly, affect this birth – dṛṣṭᾱ janma, and future births – adṛṣṭa janma. 2.13 (Sati mule tadvipᾱkaḥ jᾱti ᾱyuḥ bhogᾱḥ) adds that the quality and duration of our life is determined by karmic “assets and liabilities”, or good and bad deeds (P. Iyengar, 2013, p. 167). 2.14 (te hlᾱda paritᾱpa phalᾱḥ puṇya apuṇya hetutvᾱt) explains that our current birth is limited by the pleasurable or painful effects of past and present karma. It would seem from these sutras that there is predestined quality to re-birth, and that there is little we can do to determine its nature.
However, according to B. K. S. Iyengar, sutra 2.34 explains the “root causes of re-birth” and adds that we have a responsibility in the process, suggesting that re-birth is not entirely predestined (Iyengar, 2012 pg. 22). Vitarkaḥ hiṁsᾱdayaḥ kṛta kᾱrita anumoditᾱḥ lobha krodha moha pūrvakaḥ mṛdu Madhya adhimᾱtraḥ duḥkha ajñᾱna anantaphalᾱḥ iti pratipakṣabhᾱvanam; The negative thoughts and actions, based in violence (hiṁsa), greed (lobha), anger (krodha), or delusion (moha), that either we perform (kṛta), or have others perform on our behalf (kᾱrita), that cause us to become stuck in a never-ending cycle (ananta) of suffering (duḥkha), due to ignorance (ajñᾱna) and incorrect knowledge (vitarkaḥ). This can only be stopped when one cultivates the opposite, counteracting thoughts (pratipakṣabhᾱvanam). This sutra is significant in that it infers, not only that re-birth is a repeated cycle, but also suggests that we do, through pratipakṣabhᾱvanam, have a degree of influence, and responsibility, in altering its course. The kaivalya pada offers more detail on the causes and what determines the nature of our influence.
The causes of re-birth are described in sutra 4.2 jᾱyantara pariṇᾱmaḥ prakṛtyᾱpūrᾱt, meaning that being born into a new form occurs when natural forces overflow. Jᾱyantara pariṇᾱmaḥ means a complete transformation, or mutation of being. This transformation, whether it is biological, or psychological, is due to the process of prakṛtyᾱpūrᾱt – prakriti means nature, and ᾱpῑrᾱt means the filling in, or pouring in of. Prakṛtyᾱpūrᾱt is an overflow, suggesting that existing banks or barriers of a previous flow are broken down, rather like a river overflowing its banks. Due to the fact that these forces are natural, it is clear that re-birth, into a new form of being, is caused by spontaneous change. The biologist Julian Huxley is quoted by Mehta (1975,p. 396) as saying, “spontaneous change, or mutation, of single factors has been, and is still probably the most important source of new departures, without which evolution could not take place”. Iyengar supports this concept and adds that nature itself is “the powerhouse for spiritual evolution” (B. K. S. Iyengar, 2006, pg. 232) suggesting that the creative cause of re-birth is unpremeditated, and due to the overflow of nature.
Sutra 4.3 nimittaṁ aprayojakaṁ prakṛtῑnᾱṁ varaṇabhedaḥ tu tataḥ kṣetrikvat separates the natural causes of re-birth as described above, and infers thought processes, and thus karma, as an additional cause of re-birth. Patanjali uses the word nimitta to mean instrument or tool. Karma, propelled by thoughts and deeds, act as a tool that is, in part, what determines re-birth. Patanjali uses the image of a farmer, who, of course, cannot control the natural flow of water into his fields, but he can use instruments to remove the obstacles that prevent the natural flow. Thus, Patanjali defines that the instrumental causes of re-birth, are not the creative causes of re-birth. Re-birth is caused by both our conscious awareness, that we can control, and by prakṛti that are beyond our scope of control. This infers that re-birth is not entirely predestined. We do have control over our thoughts, even if consciousness can only perform a negative roll by removing obstacles of negative karma, our present karma can be improved, and affect re-birth.
The forces that determine the nature of re-birth are memory (smṛti), subliminal tendencies (saṁskᾱras). Saṁskᾱras are the threads that connects the process and causes of rebirth and are the obstacles to nature’s flow, as referred to in sutra 4.3. Sutra 4.9 jᾱti deśa kᾱla vyavahitᾱnᾱm api ᾱnantaryaṁ smṛti saṁskᾱrayoḥ ekarūpatvᾱt, states that even though there is a separation of time and place between re-births, there is continuity between each life due to saṁskᾱras and smṛti. Saṁskᾱras pass from life to new life, as “ᾱnantaryaṁ” or uninterrupted sequences because they are stored in memory (B. K. S. Iyengar, 2005, p. 239). Saṁskᾱras remain” like seeds irrespective of whether they are of one’s last birth or of a birth aeons ago” (Bryant, 2009, p. 420). If the right conditions present themselves, the seeds will grow, and the same tendencies will recur because the drive to maintain the continuity of the ego-self and the will to exist is the most powerful motivator of all. Here, Patanjali cycles back to the kleśas, particularly abhiniveśaḥ. Prashant Iyengar observes that “ memory is based on experience. But (abhiniveśaḥ) has no memory of experience because death is only experienced once in a lifetime” (P. Iyengar, 2013, pg. 89) thus this saṁskᾱra is created in the deaths of one’s previous lives. This motivation is ceaseless and thus our saṁskᾱras are “beginningless” (Narasimhan, 2018, p. 133).
4.11 hetu phala aśray ᾱlambanaiḥ saṅgṛhῑtatvᾱt eṣᾱm abhᾱve tad abhᾱvaḥ. Patanjali reinforces the impact of the karma/kleśa relationship and the preservation of asmitᾱ. According to Vyasa, this sutra lists the four ingredients that feed the saṁskᾱras. These are: dharma (virtuous acts) and adharma (impious acts), Phala, the motive that supports the production of more dharma and adharma, ᾱśrayᾱ, the mind that protects the ego-self through memory, and “ᾱlambana” meaning an object or event that causes the saṁskᾱras to be triggered and propels more dharma or adharma. (Bryant, 2009). Memory cannot be eliminated, but it can be cleansed and interrogated to give a precise, accurate picture that is unattached to past saṁskᾱras. Iyengar writes that memory “is not a platform with which to review the world…. but memory is absolutely necessary for the development of intelligence. Without memory, intelligence cannot prosper and we cannot reach our soul” (B. K. S. Iyengar, 2005, p. 143). Sutra 4.11 goes onto say that, with intelligence and discriminative awareness, we start to notice the nature of our motivations, and can reduce saṁskᾱras (abhᾱve). As such, their effects become less (abhᾱvaḥ), and the appetite to generate more is abated, and the cycle of re-birth can be stopped. Iyengar writes that, at this point, the mind “avoids desires and thoughts of reward, and direct its attention towards the exploration of the seer” (B. K. S. Iyengar, 2005, p. 242).
Although it is impossible to trace the origins of our sense of I-ness, and thus the origins of any action that we do, Patanjali makes it clear that the nature of re-birth is determined by the very issue of our I-ness. He also makes it clear that although the process of re-birth is not entirely within our control as suggested in sutra 4.2, the causes of re-birth are far from being predestined. It is the indulgent and resistant acts of karma that fuels the processes and causes of re-birth. Conscious awareness, or lack of it, determines the nature of our re-birth. Consciousness it is the very tool that created the saṁskᾱras, and it is the only tool that can be used to overcome them. Sutra 4.32 tataḥ kṛtᾱrthᾱnᾱṁ pariṇᾱmakrama samᾱptiḥ guṇᾱnᾱm is to have cultivated conscious awareness to the point where we have “unveiled perception” of the “real nature of things” (Mehta, 1975, p. 447) and a perception of ourselves simply as being and “living is its own destination” (Mehta, 1975, p. 452). Pariṇᾱmakrama samᾱptiḥ means the processes and causes of “successive mutations” (B. K. S. Iyengar, 2005, p. 263) of re-birth have come to an end. Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita (5.19) “Even on the moral plane, those who have conquered and established impartial minds become established in the existence of the soul in all creatures, conquering the cycle of birth and death”. (B. K. S. Iyengar, 2012, p. 26). At Geeta’s passing, it was reported to me that her last words to her sister were – “my work here is done”. This is, perhaps a very tangible illustration of how the completeness of her karma, and her detachment from its effects, enabled her to choose the time of her own passing. Such closure shows us that when we know how to live, we know how to die, and this, surely, is the deepest teaching of yoga.
Bryant, E. (2009). The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary with Insights from the Traditional Commentators. North Point Press.
Iyengar, B. K. S. (2005). Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (New edition edition). HarperCollins India.
Iyengar, B. K. S. (2012). Core of the Yoga Sutras: The Definitive Guide to the Philosophy of Yoga. Harper Thorsons.
Iyengar, B. K. S., Evans, J. J., & Abrams, D. (2006). Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom (Reprint edition). Rodale Books.
Iyengar, P. (2013). Fundamentals of Patanjali’s Philosophy: Theory of Klesha and Karma. Ramāmaṇi Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute & YOG.
Mehta, R. (1975). Yoga, the Art of Integration: A Commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The Theosophical Publishing House.
Narasimhan, P. (2018). The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: A Collection of Translations.
Note: All transliterations of the sutra text is taken from (B. K. S. Iyengar, 2005), spelling of Sanskrit is consistent with that text.