The Sattvification of the Mind: Citta-vṛttis and the three guṇas in Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra and Abhinavagupta’s Abhinavabhārati and Dhvanyālokalocana

by Zoë Slatoff


sarva-dvāreṣu dehe ’smin prakāśa upajāyate |
jñānaṃ yadā tadā vidyād vivṛddhaṃ sattvam ity uta ||

When, in all of the gates of this body, the light of knowledge is born,
Then it should be understood that sattva is predominant, indeed.[1]

Indian Yoga Philosophy and Aesthetic Theory are both predicated upon the augmentation of the sattva guṇa (quality of purity) within the mind. Although these two sciences have opposite ultimate goals − absolute unity (kaivalya) and enjoyment (bhoga) − they both begin by training the mind in one-pointed concentration. Yet how can the sattvification (purification or subtlization) of the mind lead to both transcendental bliss and worldly aesthetic appreciation? In order to begin to answer this question, it is necessary to understand the function of the citta-vṛttis (mental states) and their relationship to all three guṇas (qualities) − sattva (purity), rajas (activity), and tamas (inertia) − whose absence or presence lead to these two seemingly antithetical states.[2] While by no means comprehensive, as an initial study, I will compare the ways in which these terms are used in Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra, with King Bhoja’s commentary, the Rājamārtaṇḍa, and the Abhinavabhārati and Dhvanyālokalocana, Abhinavagupta’s commentaries on the Nātyaśāstra of Bhāratamuṇi and the Dhvanyāloka of Ānandavardhana, respectively, in the hopes that this will shed light on the larger issue.[3]

The term citta-vṛtti is usually translated as mental state or modification of consciousness. These states are often thought of as kinetic, as the verb vṛt, from which vṛtti stems, can mean rolling or turning, and can thus be conceived of as constantly fluctuating. The classical definition of yoga, as tersely stated in Yoga Sūtra 1.2, specifically prescribes the control (nirodha) of the citta-vṛttis.[4] In Patañjali’s yoga, as elaborated by all of his commentators, the main goal is to move beyond the three guṇas, through a gradual process of internal focus and subtlization. In Bhoja’s commentary on YS 1.2 he explains:

It is thus declared that Yoga is the control (nirodha) of these (mental states), or the dissolution in their innate cause (prakṛti), because of the breaking of the transformation (pariṇāma) of turning outwards, through the reverse transformation of turning inwards. And that control of all stages (bhūmi) of consciousness is the righteous duty of all living creatures, whenever and whomever become manifest in a stage of intelligent discrimination.[5]

The word nirodha is usually translated as suppression, control or dissolution. However, Ian Whicher has challenged this commonly-accepted interpretation of YS 1.2, “suggesting that any attempt to interpret Patañjali’s Yoga as a practice that seeks to annihilate or suppress the mind and its modifications for the purpose of gaining spiritual liberation distorts the intended meaning of Yoga as defined by Patañjali.”[6] He instead proposes that nirodha “refers to the cessation of the worldly, empirical effects of the vṛttis on the yogin’s consciousness, not the complete cessation of vṛttis themselves.”[7] In other words, it is not the vṛttis themselves that are problematic, but our identification with and attachment to them. I would tend to agree with his interpretation here, but it does not change the fundamental conception of the citta-vṛttis, only the yogi’s relationship to them, and nonetheless, this form of non-attachment can still be considered a means of control.

In contrast to this, Abhinava states in the Locana that aesthetic taste (rasa) comes into existence precisely when these citta-vṛttis are experienced and tasted.[8] However, they must first be harnessed, and “constantly directed toward a proper object.”[9] This is exactly the instruction that is given to yogis by Patañjali: to meditate on one principle.[10] For Abhinava, however, it is enjoyment (and not isolation) that comes into existence precisely because of the vṛttis and this one-pointed concentration. Interestingly, even though the citta-vṛttis are desired and savoured in this context, they are still intended to be controlled. In fact, the word nirodha would be appropriate here, too.

If a yogi properly controls their citta-vṛttis, then there is stability of the seer in his/her own true form; otherwise there is identification with the form of the vṛttis.[11] These vṛttis are considered to be five-fold: correct knowledge, false knowledge, imaginative fancy, sleep, and memory and can be either afflicted or unafflicted.[12] The yogi learns to control these states through practice and dispassion, as detailed by Patañjali.[13] Abhinava, on the other hand, correlates the citta-vṛttis with the stable emotions (sthāyi-bhāvas), which, along with the help of the objective and stimulant causes (ālambana and uddīpana-vibhāvas), the physical reactions (anubhāvas) and the thirty-three transitory emotions (vyabhicāra-bhāvas), produce the experience of aesthetic taste.[14]

In both sciences, although classified differently, citta-vṛttis can be thought of as habitual patterns of thought, conditioned both by our birth and experiences. Modern science has shown that our old habitual patterns cannot be obliterated, however, we can create new neuronal pathways that override the old ones. In a recent article, Janet Rae Dupree explains, “Brain researchers have discovered that when we consciously develop new habits, we create parallel synaptic paths, and even entirely new brain cells, that can jump our trains of thought onto new, innovative tracks.”[15] Thus if we train our minds to focus on one point, or even just to do new things, we can change the ways in which our minds work. This is precisely the goal of both Yoga and Aesthetic theory. In other words, although the citta-vṛttis cannot be annihilated, they can be superceded. This supports Whicher’s thesis: that nirodha is not suppression but non-identification with the vṛttis. And it supports Abhinava’s correlation between aesthetic delight or wonder (camatkāra) and the citta-vṛttis that produce aesthetic taste. For according to Dawna Markova, “author of ‘The Open Mind’ and an executive change consultant for Professional Thinking Partners,” “‘the first thing needed for innovation is a fascination with wonder.’”[16] This affirms the idea that one could become both a better aesthete and a better yogi by teaching the mind to focus in new ways.

Both conceptions of the citta and the eventual sattvification of the mind depend upon the three guṇas. The three guṇas, as originated and described in Sāṃkhya philosophy, are considered to be the fundamental constituents of Nature (prakṛti) and it is through a disturbance in their equilibrium that the transformation (pariṇāma) from unmanifest to manifest nature occurs.[17] The word guṇa has multiple technical meanings; however in this context it means a characteristic, a quality, an attribute, or literally, a thread. We are each born with different proportions of these three entities and this determines our individual personalities. As detailed in the Sāṃkhya Kārika, rajas, tamas, and sattva are associated respectively with the psychological qualities of aversion or pain (aprīti), depression or despair (viṣāda), and pleasure or joy (prīti); and the physical qualities of inciting and fluctuating (upaṣṭambhaka and cala), heavy and enveloping (guru and varaṇaka), and light and shining (laghu and prakāśa).[18] According to Yogic theory, the guṇas can be influenced and balanced by what we take into our bodies and minds. Yoga involves the control and eventual elimination of all three of these elements, while aesthetic taste cannot come into existence without their presence.

In Yoga, the stages (bhūmi) that the mind passes through are considered to be five-fold: “agitated, stupefied, distracted, one-pointed and controlled.”[19] The first of these three stages are associated with the three guṇas, respectively. Due to a preponderance of one guṇa, which can be caused by nature or nurture, birth or circumstance, the mind will be drawn towards a different state. Even the sattva guṇa, the “best” of the three, leads to a state that is characterized as “distracted”. As explained in great detail by Bhoja:

With respect to that (the enumeration of the mental states), the agitated state arises from a preponderance of rajas. Impelled by rajas, (the mind) becomes unstable, through the state of turning outwards in the concerns of happiness, suffering, etc., which are conjectured, remote or close at hand. And that is always the realm of the demons, the daityas and dānavas, etc. The stupefied state arises from a preponderance of tamas, divided between what is to be done and what is not to be done, bound in hostile acts through anger, etc. And that is always the realm of the evil spirits, the rākṣasas, piśācas, etc. And the distracted state, from a preponderance of sattva, by means of its superiority, having forsaken the means to the achievement of suffering, is engaged in the words, etc. which are the means to the achievement of happiness, alone. And that is always the realm of the gods, the devas. What is meant is the following: Consciousness, by means of rajas, has the form of movement, through tamas it is fixed in offense towards others, and through sattva becomes made of happiness.[20]

While Yoga equates rajas, tamas, and sattva with the agitated, stupefied and distracted states of mind, Abhinava in the Abhinavabhārati equates them with quickening (druti), expansion (vistāra), and radiance (vikāsa), respectively. The former are to be eliminated, the latter three to be enjoyed. According to Ingalls et. al, there is no evidence of the use of these three technical terms before Bhaṭṭanāyaka; however, they are commonly used in later texts.[21] Some authors connect these terms with specific rasas,[22] however in this context they are clearly correlated with the three guṇas. The Bālapriyā of Śrī Rāmaśāraka, a commentary on the Locana, confirms this, clearly identifying “the three forms of enjoyment with the three respective components of the enjoyer: rajas, tamas, and sattva.”[23]

Abhinava writes that "rasa, being brought into existence, differing from experience and memory, is enjoyed to the highest extent by means of enjoyment (bhoga), which is analogous to the tasting of the supreme Brahman, characterized by repose in one’s own consciousness, consisting of the bliss of illumination because of an abundance of sattva, characterized by quickening (druti), expansion (vistāra) and radiance (vikāsa) from the force of the manifoldness of combination with rajas and tamas."[24]

A similar passage in the Dhvanyāloka, as translated by Daniel Ingalls et. al., may perhaps shed light on this passage:

Once a rasa has been thus realized, its enjoyment (bhoga) [is possible], an enjoyment which is different from the apprehensions derived from memory or direct experience and which takes the form of melting, expansion, and radiance. This enjoyment is like the bliss that comes from realizing [one’s identity] with the highest Brahman, for it consists of repose in the bliss which is the true nature of one’s own self, a nature which is basically sattva but is intermingled with the diversity of rajas and tamas.[25]

The word druti has been translated by Ingalls et. al. as “melting”; however, I think this is a mistranslation. The root dru, from which it derives, can mean to melt; however, it can also mean “to run”, “run away”, “flow”, or even “fly”.[26] If the word druti corresponds with rajas, it would be more logical to translate it as “quickening” or “running away”, since rajas corresponds with movement. An aesthete who has a preponderance of rajas, will be more likely to find their mind running away or speeding up during an experience of aesthetic enjoyment. Abhinava continues:

Aesthetic enjoyment (bhoga), which is a melting, expansion and radiance, otherwise known as relishing (āsvāda), comes about rather from the cessation of that obscuration [of the true nature of the self] which is caused by the thick darkness of ignorance. [...] But it is wrong to think that the varieties of relishing are fully enumerated by melting, expansion, and radiance, because there are innumerable possible variations on account of the endless variety [of human character] created by the varying degrees of predominance among the components of character, sattva, rajas, and tamas.[27]

Thus, one’s guṇic predisposition affects the way in which one views an aesthetic event. In Abhinava’s view, there are not merely three major types of aesthetes (rasikas), but infinite varieties, due to the infinite possibilities for combining these three qualities in varying proportions. Yogis, too are born with different guṇic predispositions and this determines how easily they will progress on the yogic path. However, whatever a yogi’s innate constitution, the main goal of yoga is to let go of the identification with this predisposition. The practitioner of yoga must eventually overcome even the sattva guṇa in order to move to a state of one-pointedness (ekāgrata). According to Bhoja, a specific order for overcoming the guṇas is prescribed:

These three states of consciousness are not conducive towards the goal of spiritual liberation. And among the two - rajas and tamas - even though they both are fit to be abandoned to the highest degree, this goal is first obtained from rajas. Just as there is not a shown origin, so, too, it is not possible to show the cessation; thus it is displayed by the opposition of the two. And of sattva, this goal is manifested afterwards, because it is superior.

Whicher explains, however, that “the vṛttis themselves do not cease to exist. Even in the enlightened yogin there are tamasic, rajasic and sattvic dimensions constituting his or her prakṛtic apparatus, but these guṇic qualities no longer obscure the yogin’s perception of reality. The yogin, however, detached from any identification with the guṇas, is no longer enslaved to the vṛtti-generating complex of the mind.”[28] Although the guṇas must continue to exist in any sentient being, the yogi is no longer held captive by them and can transcend the mental instability that they cause.

The process of sattvification can be considered parallel to ideas of Western psychology. Girindrasekhar Bose (1886-1953), the first non-Western psychoanalyst, and author of a translation of the Yoga Sūtras, attempted to synthesize this information in his work. According to Bose, “the fate of the science of the unconscious, human happiness, and the dignity of science converge in the step-wise unravelling and transcendence of the guṇas.”[29] For Bose, tamas is equated with the “control [of] ajñāna or the absence of knowledge (in a person) and aprakāśa or the nonmanifest (in nature).”[30] In contrast, both rajas and sattva are equated with “jñāna or knowledge (in human personality) and the manifest (in nature)”, however the former is “bahirmukha, literally outer-directed or extroversive” and the latter is “antarmukha, inner- directed or introversive.”[31] Bose, following in the footsteps of Freud, thought that tamas constituted “an inferior level of personality functioning,” [32] equating it with “instinctual impulses,”[33] and contrary to Bhoja, thought that it should be the first to be overcome. He proposed that this should be done by turning the mind away from the external world to contemplate our internal transformations, through his own brand of psychoanalysis. For Bose, psychology is the highest of sciences and represents an evolution of consciousness: one in which all four human aims (puruṣārthas) − duty (dharma), wealth (artha), desire (kāma) and liberation (mokṣa) − both the worldly and transcendental aspects of a human being, are addressed simultaneously through the sattvification of the mind.

Both the practice of yoga and the development of an aesthetic appreciation entail this purification and subtlization of the mind. However, yoga takes this two steps further. According to Bhoja, it is only after the three guṇas are completely abandoned, that one attains one-pointedness and control.

Thus the other two states are conducive to yoga. The transformation of these two, the one-pointed and controlled states of mind, in the form of one-pointedness is what is called yoga. What is meant is the following − in the one-pointed stage there is the controlled restraint of the external fluctuating states. And in the controlled stage there is a dissolution of all the fluctuating states and past impressions, thus the origin of yoga is in these very two stages.[34]

Thus, the state of absolute unity, the true goal of yoga, cannot be achieved as long as the yogi remains attached to any of the three guṇas.

The ease with which a yogi can learn to overcome their (mis)identification with their citta-vṛttis and guṇas depends upon the guṇic predisposition they were born with, which is a product of past impressions (saṃskāras) and present circumstance. For the aesthete as well, their guṇic pre-disposition determines their citta-vṛttis and thus the way in which they savour an aesthetic event. Ironically, the criteria for being a good yogi and a good rasika, despite their opposite intentions, are the same − a predominance of sattva. Those lucky enough to be born with a greater amount of this guṇa will make both better aesthetes and yogis; however, an aspirant can in both cases change their guṇic state through practice. But perhaps the goals are not so different. They both involve one-pointed concentration; it is just harnessed towards different ends − enjoyment or absolute unity.

Although enjoyment may be worldly (laukika) and absolute unity may be otherworldly (alaukika), a true yogi lives in the world and a true aesthete has otherworldly experiences. According to Edwin Gerow, for Abhinava, the two realms were mutually influential. He suggests that the intersection between the two can be found in śānta rasa (the sentiment of peace), the ninth and often controversial taste, which unlike the other eight is connected to the fourth human aim of liberation. In the words of Abhinava, as translated by Gerow, “it would be unusual if one of the four puruṣārthas-and the most important, by all accounts- were so different from the others, in terms of its grounding in the human psyche, that it could not be seen as arising out of the human condition, and be incapable of appreciation in some sense.”[35] The realms of aesthetic appreciation and transcendental bliss are not mutually exclusive; in both cases, “the light of knowledge is born”. Arguably, since a yogi has perfect control over their citta-vṛttis perhaps they would make the best rasikas and since a rasika develops perfection in one-pointed concentration, perhaps they would make the best yogis.



1 Bhagavad Gītā. XIV.11
2 These are provisional translations. I will leave these words untranslated throughout this paper, as they are the terms under discussion and extremely difficult to capture in an English word.
3 I choose these two authors as they are relatively contemporaneous - late 10th - early 11th century - and both wrote prolifically on both worldly and transcendental subjects.
4 YS I.2 yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ |
5 RM on YS I.2. All translations are my own unless otherwise specified.
6 Ian Whicher, “Yoga and Freedom: A Reconsideration of Patañjali’s Classical Yoga,” Philosophy East and West 48.2 (Apr., 1998), 273.
7 Ibid.
8 Daniel H. H. Ingalls et. al, , trans, The Dhvanyāloka of Ānandavardhana with the Locana of Abhinavagupta, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990, 107.
9 Ibid.
10 YS I.32 tat pratiṣedhārtham eka-tattvābhyāsaḥ | Patañjali goes on to give other options for the overcoming of obstacles, however, this is the first and primary method.
11 YS I.3. tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe ‘vasthānam | YS I.4. vṛtti-sārūpyam itaratra |
12 YS I.6. pramāṇa-viparyaya-vikalpa-nidrā-smṛtayaḥ | YS 1.5. vṛttayaḥ pancatayaḥ kliṣṭākliṣṭāḥ |
13 YS 1.12. abhyāsa-vairāgyābhyāṃ tannirodhaḥ |
14 Ingalls, Dhvanyāloka, 217.
15 Janet Rae-Dupree, “Can You Become a Creature of New Habits?,” New York Times, May 4, 2008,
16 Ibid.
17 See K. B. Ramakrishna Rao, “The Guṇas of Prakṛti According to the Sāṃkhya Philosophy,” for a discussion of the relationship between the guṇas and prakṛti.
18 SK, XII-XIV, in K. B. Ramakrishna Rao, “The Guṇas of Prakṛti According to the Sāṃkhya Philosophy,” Philosophy East and West 13.1 (Apr., 1963), 70.
19 RM on YS I.2. kṣiptam, mūḍham, vikṣiptam, ekāgratam, niruddham.
20 RM on YS I.2.
21 Ingalls, Dhvanyāloka, fn. 228.
22 See Gnoli, p. 46 and Raghavan, Bhoja, pp. 467ff. I became aware of this reference thanks to Ingalls et. al., Dhvanyāloka, fn. 228.
23 Ingalls, Dhvanyāloka, fn. 228.
24 Abhinavabhārati, p.271 ln1-5.
25 Ibid., 222.
26 Vaman Shivram Apte, The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary, dru.
27 Ibid., 225-6.
28 Whicher, “Yoga and Freedom,” 276.
29 Ashis Nandy, “The Savage Freud: The First Non-Western Psychoanalyst and the Politics of Secret Selves in Colonial India,” in The Savage Freud and Other Essays on Possible and Retrievable Selves, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, 129.
30 Ibid., 123.
31 Ibid.
32 Ibid., 125.
33 Ibid., 130.
34 RM on YS I.2.
35 Edwin Gerow, “Abhinavagupta’s Aesthetics as a Speculative Paradigm,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 114.2 (Apr. - Jun., 1994), 188.



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