The Different Samadhis in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras

If you've read Patañjali's Yoga-Sutra de Patañjali – ou du moins entendu parler du célèbre yoga aux huit membres (« ashtanga yoga ») dont il traite – vous aurez noté que la notion de « samadhi » y est centrale. Cet état d’immobilité parfaite du mental forme l’ultime étape du Yoga avant la libération. Mais comme l’hindouisme aime imbriquer les concepts dans des catégories et les emboiter elles-mêmes dans des sous catégories … tout est toujours un peu plus compliqué que prévu. On constate en effet qu’il n’est pas question d’un samadhi en général mais de plusieurs samadhi et de « sous samadhi » à divers degrés et que tous ne se valent pas ni ne se situent sur le même plan. Heureusement, Alexandre Astier, historien et spécialiste de l’hindouisme ancien nous éclaire (pradipika!).

Citta Vritti | We observe that Patanjali's Yoga sutra mention several forms or types of samadhi: can you briefly present this breakdown?

Alexandre Astier Indeed Patañjali's Yoga-Sutra mention several samadhis. To keep it simple, we can focus on the first chapter "Samādhi-pāda" dedicated to this fundamental notion, which divides samadhi into two main categories (I.17-23): on one hand, samadhi with knowledge (samprajñata-samadhi)which is further divided into four subcategories, and on the other hand, samadhi without knowledge (a-samprajñata-samadhi). These experiences are reiterated later in the first pada (I. 41-51) but are referred to this time as "samapatti," which is a synonym (with or without seed: "sa-bija" and "nir-bija").

This diversity can be explained by the fact that the Yoga-Sutra is somewhat of a mosaic text that, in my view, has brought together several yoga traditions to form a unifying base text for different practice currents. Through the two words of samadhi and samapatti, one can think that the Yoga-Sutra seeks to bring together different traditions and small groups of yogis by reusing, in a way, the words each one preferred.

Can you then detail this mosaic of samadhi in the Yoga-Sutra ? 

The first pada (or chapter) speaks of two main categories of samadhi: with knowledge (I.17) and without knowledge (I.18).

Samadhi with knowledge (samprajñata-samadhi) is a mental experience where the yogi gains full knowledge of the object (or support) that serves as the basis for his practice. During this samadhi, the mind, which is like a transparent crystal, fully assumes the features of the fixed object. The yogi merges with the support of his practice; he identifies, wholly absorbs in the object of his meditation practice. This samadhi with knowledge comes after training (which begins with the yamas, niyamas... the famous eight limbs of yoga). So these are progressive meditation exercises.

In this samadhi with knowledge, the text tells us that there are 4 sub-varieties according to the degree of absorption reached (which are also named samapatti at the end of this chapter, I. 41-51):

  • xSamadhi with reasoning (vitarka) : verbal and logical associations still remain, despite the calming of the mind. The notion of the object, the word of the object, and the perception of the object (the three aspects of reality in Indian epistemology) are in perfect fusion with the mind. We are in a mental and verbal operation, where logical connectors and reasoning persist.
  • Samadhi with discernment (vicara) : the yogi no longer stops at the form of the fixed object, but knows its elementary essences (the tanmatras). As if the yogi could know the structure of matter, a kind of somewhat mystical atomic vision where one no longer stops at the form of the object but knows the elementary components of the object.
  • Samadhi with bliss (ananda) : in this form of samadhi, the yogi no longer focuses on material objects, but on cognitive faculties and on the structure of the mind. Bliss at this stage indicates the predominance of the guna sattva (it opposes the guna tamas which characterizes sadness). Feeling happy in this form of samadhi testifies to the maintenance of a form of ego since feeling happy involves a mental analysis of self-awareness, therefore of the ego. Bhoja [learned king of India in the 11th century], in his commentary, identifies this samadhi with the experience of ahamkara (the Principle of individuation, the Ego).
  • Samadhi with a sense of "I am" (asmita) : this is an experience based solely on the consciousness of the "I" at its ultimate stage, probably corresponding to the highest level of the Manifested in the classification of tattvas, that is, buddhi, the Absolute Intelligence and Will. Bhoja, in his commentary, identifies this samadhi with the experience of buddhi (Intelligence and Will). Michel Angot (a French indologist and Sanskritist) speaks of the concept of "beingness": an experience that relies only on the sense of "I".

However, some of these samadhis seem to be omitted in the rest of the text…

The first two types of samādhi with knowledge (vitarka and vicara) are again detailed at the end of Chapter I (referred to as samapatti), but the last two (ananda and asmita) no longer appear in the text. This probably marks traces of a successive reworking of the Yoga-Sūtra, with revisions, reinterpretations, and rewrites to arrive at the text as it is. Michel Angot hypothesizes that a samadhi with bliss is difficult to reconcile with the idea that " everything is suffering " stated in sutra II.15 (" duhkham eva sarvam"), an idea that is common to the Yoga-Sūtra and the Buddha's first sermon. The general condemnation of happiness is a constant in these spiritualities that seek to escape the world and the cycle of rebirths. As for asmita (the sense of "I am"), it becomes a factor of pain (klesha) in sutra II.3. What is interesting is that this shows us a variety of meditative practices.

So, the second major category of knowledgeless samadhi is somewhat at the top of the samadhi pyramid?

Knowledgeless samadhi (a-samprajñata-samadhi) in I.18. is the ultimate stage of samadhi that is achieved after a long practice of the various samadhis with knowledge presented previously. In the samadhi with knowledge, the mind, even very purified, still continues to function (it provides words, logical connectors to the meditation experience).

When you move to the next level, to knowledgeless samadhi, the functioning of the mind - at least its conscious part - stops. It's a state that's hard to describe because it's beyond the usual categories of thought since speech can say nothing and can't be analyzed by the mind or any logical reasoning. It is only when the yogin comes back from this experience that he can try to put words on it. Words that will be fundamentally imperfect since they have to describe an experience that has unfolded outside of words with a non-functioning mind. So it's very difficult to explain.

Even within this knowledgeless samadhi there is a form of gradation. In the first part, the mind is at rest but the unconscious part of the mind remains. This is almost revolutionary in such an old text since it is considered that the psyche continues to work, which Freud highlighted very well in the 20th century. The Yoga-Sutra recognize this aspect of the unconscious that they call the samskara: residual imprints or traces of past activities. That is to say, when you have done something or thought something, it creates a trace or a hollow in the mind, like a mold, where the following thoughts and actions will take place. These samskaras explain both good and bad habits. But it's a realm where the rational mind doesn't manage, like in Freud's notion of the unconscious.

To reach ultimate liberation (kaivalya), these samskaras must be exhausted to definitively clean the traces of the unconscious thanks to the cessation of mental fluctuations. The mental representation therefore ceases to be a support and fades in favor of what surpasses it, that is, the purusha or spiritual principle, which is then released.

Concretely, how do we move from samadhi with knowledge to samadhi without knowledge?

In the lower categories of samadhi (with knowledge or seed), there is production and maintenance of residual imprints (samskaras), which maintain links with Nature (Prakriti) and the cycle of rebirths. The succession of various samadhis with knowledge (or with seed) ends up producing perfect knowledge (prajña) carrying order and truth (ṛta) which generates a particular residual imprint. This samskara has the peculiarity of blocking and "cleaning" the other older samskaras and, in a way, dissolving them. This operation allows the transition to knowledgeless samadhi (or seedless).


Also read the first part of this interview: Tribulations around samadhi with Alexandre Astier..


You can find Alexandre Astier's books (in french) in bookstores, including: L’Hindouisme pour les Nuls en 50 notions clés (Paris, Broché, 2020) ; L’hindouisme (Paris, Eyrolles, 2013) ; Citations hindoues expliquées (Paris, Eyrolles, 2008) ; Les maîtres spirituels de l’hindouisme (Paris, Eyrolles, 2008) ; Petite histoire de l’Inde (Paris, Eyrolles, 2007) ; Comprendre l’hindouisme (Paris, Eyrolles, 2006).

And to go (even) further, Alexandre Astier kindly shares with us his bibliographic orientation on the concept of samadhi :

  • BAREAU André, Jacques MAY, Tara MICKAËL, « Samādhi », dans Sylvain Auroux (dir.),
    Encyclopédie Philosophique Universelle, II : Les Notions Philosophiques, Tome 2, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1990, p. 2894-2896.
  • ANGOT Michel, « Samādhi », dans Le Yoga-Sūtra de Patañjali, le Yoga-Bhāṣya de Vyāsa, édition, traduction et présentation de Michel ANGOT, Les Belles Lettres, 2008, 2nde éd. 2012, p. 841-843.
  • SARBACKER Stuart Ray, Samādhi: The Numinous and Cessative in Indo-Tibetan Yoga, Albany, State University of New York Press, 2005.
  • BRYANT Edwin F., « Samādhi in the Yoga Sūtras », in Halvor Eifring (ed.), Asian
    Traditions of Meditation
    , Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Press, 2016, p. 48-70.

One response to “The Different Samadhis in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras”

  1. […] est l’exercice de samadhi qui est complexe et présente plusieurs formes [voir notre article : Les différentes formes de samadhi dans les Yoga-Sutra]. Cet exercice de samadhi permet l’ouverture, le grand saut, le passage vers kaivalya. Autrement […]

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