The Kleshas

The 5 Fundamental Causes of Suffering

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali explains the kleshas, the five fundamental causes of human suffering. He identifies them as:

  1. Avidya, ignorance
  2. Asmita, “I am-ness,” the limitation of the ego consciousness, or the ego sense
  3. Raga, attachment
  4. Dvesha, hatred
  5. Abhinivesha, fear of death or the instinct to protect the physical body

Avidya—Ignorance

Avidya, “nescience” or “ignorance,” is a synonym for ajnana that denotes spiritual ignorance. According to the Yoga Sutras, it is the first and the most important of the five kleshas (causes of suffering that bind humans to the cycle of rebirth). In fact, it is the root cause of the other four kleshas. In the Yoga Sutras (2.5), Patanjali says: “Ignorance (avidya) is seeing [that which is] eternal, pure, joyful, and [pertaining to] the Self as ephemeral, impure, sorrowful, and [pertaining to] the non-self (anatman).”

Ignorance is defined as the confusion that makes us see that which is eternal (the Self) as transitory and limited. According to another great sage, Shankaracharya, avidya might also be: “seeing that which is transitory and limited as eternal (the Self).” This state of confusion is determined by the habitual identification and fixation upon pleasurable things, which, being transitory, cannot bring lasting happiness. An example would be considering and treating ephemeral things like the physical body or personal belongings as eternal and hoping that they will be sources of everlasting happiness. Therefore, ignorance is this lack of discrimination between what is immutable and eternal (the Self) and what it is ephemeral, transitory, and impermanent.

Avidya is the main cause of suffering because ignorance makes us search for everlasting happiness outside our real Self, in the phenomenal world. Being impermanent, the different aspects of the world cannot bring us eternal happiness. On the contrary, they bring us illusion, attachment, suffering, and pain. Therefore, in the yogic context, ignorance (nescience) is not an absence of knowledge, but a misconception about reality. For example, not knowing geography, mathematics, or physics is not ignorance in the metaphysical sense.

Asmita—Ego Consciousness

Asmita, “I am-ness,” represents the feeling of being just a personal entity. It is the sense of the ego. The second of the kleshas, it is the limitation of the egoic consciousness.

As Patanjali said in the Yoga Sutras (2:6): “I am-ness (asmita) is the apparent identification of the powers of vision [i.e., the instruments of knowledge (the sense organs and mind)] with the Seer [i.e., the Supreme Self, the Witness Consciousness].”

So, the sense of individuality that creates the personality is due to the identification of the Knower (i.e., the Witness Consciousness) with the instruments of knowledge. Identifying ourselves with the instruments of knowledge (i.e., the mind and sense organs) we get the illusion that we are an entity that dwells in a body and has a whole personal story with dramas, attachments, etc. This generates a sense of separateness, division, and duality—me and others—and, thus, opens the gate to suffering.

Sri Ramakrishna describes this identification with a very simple but eloquent comparison: “As long as God keeps the awareness of ‘I’ in us, so long do the sense objects exist; and we cannot very well speak of the world as a dream. There is fire in the hearth; therefore the rice and pulses and potatoes and the other vegetables jump about in the pot. They jump about as if to say: ‘We are here! We are jumping!’ This body is the pot. The mind and intelligence are the water. The objects of the senses are the rice, potatoes, and other vegetables. The ‘I-consciousness’ identified with the senses says, ‘I am jumping about.’ And Satchidananda (the Absolute) is the fire.”

Raga—Attachment

Raga means “attachment” or “passion.” The third klesha, “Raga (attachment) [is that which] is based on pleasant [experiences].” (Yoga Sutras, 2:7) Therefore, raga is defined as the attraction we feel towards any person or object when any kind of pleasure or happiness is derived from that person or object. It is natural for us to enjoy the things that give us different forms of pleasure—whether physical, emotional, or mental. This enjoyment will not become a hindrance if we are aware of our True Nature. But, as long as avidya (ignorance, the main root of suffering) binds us, attraction will lead us to dwell upon the pleasurable—we cling to it, mistakenly believing ordinary, ephemeral happiness to be eternal. Attraction makes us grope after ananda (eternal bliss) in the external world, which is delusive and leads to suffering.

Dvesha—Hatred

Dvesha, the fourth klesha, means “aversion,” “hatred,” or “repulsion.” In the Yoga Sutras (2:8), Patanjali defines it in this way: “Aversion (dvesha) [is that which] is based on sorrowful [experiences].” Dvesha is the repulsion felt towards any person or object that is a source of pain or unhappiness to us. Repulsion and attraction are two faces of the same coin. Looking for pleasure and avoiding pain has never been a valid spiritual path. They both keep the human being at the level of the mind, grasping for what is pleasurable and rejecting what it is not pleasurable. They both direct the being in the external world, keeping the illusion that we may attain happiness by rejecting that which produces suffering and embracing that which gives pleasure. Dvesha is only raga (attachment) in the negative. In fact, this pair governs most of our lives, consciously or unconsciously conditioning us, and it is the breeding ground for our worldly desires.

Nisargadatta Maharaj beautifully expressed the same idea: “You are always seeking pleasure, avoiding pain, always after happiness and peace. Don’t you see that it is your very search for happiness that makes you feel miserable? Try the other way: indifferent to pain and pleasure, neither asking nor refusing, give all your attention to the level on which ‘I am’ is timelessly present. Soon you will realize that peace and happiness are in your very nature and it is only seeking them through some particular channels that disturbs. Avoid the disturbance, that is all.”

Repulsion binds us as much as attraction because it is the expression of a force (the repulsive force) connecting two elements that repel each other. For example, we are tied to the person we hate more firmly than to the person to whom we are indifferent.

On the other hand, attraction and repulsion can be sublimated. If the spiritual aspirant directs them consciously and wisely, their energies can be used for spiritual progress. This idea is expressed in the Uddhava Gita (4:22): “On whatever the individual concentrates the mind fully and intelligently either through attachment or even through hatred—with that he becomes coessential.”

Ramakrishna also advises us how to use attraction in a spiritual manner: “Have faith in God’s forms. Meditate on that form of God which appeals to your mind.”

There is a story that might appear paradoxical to us. It speaks about the alchemical power of repulsion. In the story, Shishupala, the King of Chedi, was released from the grip of the world by “virtue” of his abiding hatred for the god Vishnu over a period of three lifetimes. In reality, his capacity to focus his mind on Vishnu constantly released him.

Abhinivesha—Fear of Death

The fifth klesha, Abhinivesha is “fear of death” or the instinct to protect the physical body. According to the Yoga Sutras (2:9): “Abhinivesha is sustained by its own empirical experiences; it affects even the learned.” Patanjali says that this klesha is present even in learned people, which means it cannot be transcended by mere intellectual understanding or knowledge derived from studying scriptures and comparing doctrinal views.

Unless and until the tree of kleshas is destroyed, root and branch, by a perseverant practice of yogic discipline and meditation, the fear of death will continue to a greater or lesser degree. Abhinivesha is merely the fruit or the final expression of the chain of causes and effects set in motion with the birth of avidya (ignorance). It can also be seen as a result of the blending of the other kleshas: avidya together with asmita (ego sense) makes us believe that life in this body is eternal. Therefore, we generate raga (attraction), strongly desiring to live eternally in this form, and dvesha (aversion), powerfully rejecting the idea of leaving this body. That is why clinging to life is often associated with the fear of death.