I don’t normally think of the sutras as jargony, but that’s what we’ve got here, I do believe. Sanskrit jargon! Really, the sutras are nothing but jargon. The rules of composition that guide sutra writing ask for as few syllables as possible because a student’s manner of absorption was originally memorization. So you end up with some words that mean a whole lot, but it’s not immediately clear to a newcomer (or a student of many years!) what they mean. It’s unlikely that even students with perfect retention of the text, were / are able to parse meaning applicable to their yoga study without some guidance as to how the words that made the cut connect and convey instruction.
Now, of course, it feels especially like that to me and most people who are not scholars of Sanskrit, but the historians tell me it’s not just my lack of Sanskrit that makes this text tough to use without a teacher’s help breaking it down and putting it back together again.
For example, consider these translations of sutra 3.14 (shanta udita avyapadeshya dharma anupati dharmi):
A thing or event is characterized by the fact that some things have happened to it, some are happening to it, and some are due to happen to it.
Translation by Kofi Busia
The substratum is that which underpins past, present, and future.
Translation by Edwin Bryant
The form-bearer [i.e the substance] is [that which] conforms to the quiescent, uprisen, or indeterminable form.
Translation by Georg Feuerstein
There is an unmanifest, indescribable substratum or existence that is common or contained within all of the other forms or qualities.
Translation by Swami J. Bharati
They’re all quite different, right? The translators all have slightly different objectives that contribute to the variety, of course, but this same range does not show up with the translations of every single sutra. Teachers of yoga need to know from their teachers what is meant by dharma (literally, “form, quality, characteristics”) and dharmin (literally, “the object containing the characteristics, substratum, existence”) in order to pass the “proper” interpretation on to their students. Tricky, because the various schools of yoga hold slightly different beliefs, not to mention still other perspectives from Vedanta, Tantra, and various other Indic philosophies!
Okay, so that’s my take on how to navigate gingerly through these deep sutra waters, now on to how to make use of what’s contained in sutra 3.14!
The root of the Sanskrit word “dharma” is “to hold” (dhr) and as best I can deduce, dharma (quality, form) is so because it holds its quality permanently. In sutra 3.14, we see a version of the term dharma twice (shanta udita avyapadeshya dharma anupati dharmi) in two different, but closely related meanings. The first instance, dharma, again means quality or characteristic or form. The second instance, dharmin, means that which takes on the quality. A dharma is unchanging, but can have many dharmin, which are inherently changeable. For example, clay is clay whether it is in the earth, on a potter’s wheel, or in a cupboard as a pot. Something happened to the clay to make it into a pot, it went through at least three dharmin, but there’s an essential quality in that clay that was there at the beginning and remains in the pot. There’s an essence that makes clay, clay. That essence is unchanging and quite possibly immaterial.
You have a dharma, too. An essence that is unchanging. Living your life takes you through many changes. Each instance, each shift, is a different dharmin, a different form-bearer in your life. You are you when you’re a baby, an adult, or an old gal. The changes that come about from living your life don’t change you.
When you live with an awareness of your dharma, that part of you that moves through the years unchanged, you will likely be sensitive to dharmin (be they activities, thoughts, relationships, jobs, etc) that burden your dharma, your you-ness, with a poor fit. Square peg in round hole kind of poor fit.
Living a life crammed into a round hole if your essence is inherent squareness creates otherwise unnecessary activity (we call that karma) to free yourself from this uncomfortable poor fit. To get back to your dharma and activities that nurture it can then take some effort (we call that working out your karma) and perhaps a bit of “soul-searching”.
These sutras, in short, seek to give you some tools for figuring out your dharma, working through your karma, and getting back to self. To you. Whoever you may be.
Hari om tat sat!
Experience your true self and bring it into every moment of your living!
The Yoga Sutras are a classical text on yoga–a guidebook of sorts.
Each week, 216 teacher Esther Palmer dives into one of the sutras and we let it take us where it takes us.