A Commentary on Sutra 31 of Book Two of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Yoga Sutra 2:31. These (the five vows), not conditioned by class, place, time or occasion and extending to all stages constitute the Great Vow.
Ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, and aparigraha (See Yama: Your First Important Steps to Success in Yoga) are the Great Vow because they require the exercise of will and because of their dynamic effect on us.
Even more, they are great because, like the elements, they are self-sufficient, depending on nothing else, and because they cannot be mutated into something else. They are always what they are, and for that reason they are always to be observed with no exceptions whatsoever. They cannot be neglected or omitted for any reason–absolutely. Patanjali lists the possible conditions which do affect lesser observances: class, place, time or occasion, and stages.
A brief consideration of each will be helpful.
No one can mitigate or omit the observance of ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, and aparigraha because of “who” he “is.” In yoga, too, no one is above the law. That is, no one can produce the effects of Yama without their observance.
I knew an Archbishop with a quick sense of humor. Once he made a pungent remark about someone, and a woman objected, saying, “That remark is not Christian.” He simply smiled and replied, “Madam, I do not have to be a Christian–I am an Archbishop!” Thought the Archbishop was making a joke, this is an attitude of many, springing from the blindness of egotism.
Whatever may be the ways of a particular place or group of people in which we may find ourselves, the observances of Yama are incumbent upon us.
“When in Rome do as the Romans” is one of the silliest axioms ever coined. Peer pressure must never be an influence on us. Nor should unjust rules or laws have any effect on us. What is right must always be done. The will or opinion of others cannot change our obligation to observe the Great Vow. Nor can external conditions change it. Not even to save our lives can we turn from what is forever right.
- Time or occasion.
Human beings have for some reason always thought that “now” abrogates what was right or true in the past. It does not. Nor does a situation effect any change in what must be done by us as aspirants to yoga. Aversion to being “out of step” or “alienated from society” has no place in the mind and heart of the yogi.
We never “get beyond” the observance of the Great Vow. Those at the very end of the spiritual journey are as obligated to fulfill the Great Vow as those who are at the beginning. Also, we cannot “go too far” or “overdo” our observance of the Vow. It is all or nothing.
“Ahimsa and the others are to be maintained all the time and in all circumstances and in regard to all objects without any conscious lapse,” declares Vyasa. Shankara points out that the Great Vow must be observed by us in relation to all beings–not just confined to humans.
Once again we see the psychological nature of the five components of the Great Vow and how their observance is based upon the courage, self-respect, and self-knowledge of the yogi.
Further Reading: How to Be a Yogi