A Guide to the Five Kleshas
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali speaks about the five kleshas, or obstacles to Self-knowledge, meaning they prevent us from realising that we are in essence the unlimited, eternal Pure Consciousness, which is the basis of the whole of creation. Are you familiar with them?
My teacher in India sometimes used his hand as a mnemonic when he spoke about the kleshas… (If you look at your own 🖐🏼 while reading this, it will help embed them in your memory!)
Avidya (ignorance) is the thumb—the main player!
Asmita (ego) is the index finger, pointing at your own body.
Raga (attraction) and Dvesha (aversion) are the third and fourth fingers, sticking together.
Abhinivesha (fear of death) is the little finger(or pinkie if you’re American!)—it might appear small but it’s stronger than you might think!
In Sanskrit, when there is an ‘a’ sound in front of a word, it means ‘not’, a bit like ‘un’ in English. So avidya (a-vidya) literally means not knowing. In our day to day lives, not knowing can cause all sorts of problems. Not knowing how to speak someone’s language, for example, creates a big barrier to communicationA.
But at a more fundamental level, not knowing who or what we are in the core of our being is the root cause of all the other kleshas and of pretty much all suffering in life. Which is why, of course, the original aim of yoga is to remove avidya and come to know ourselves for what we really are— eternal, undivided, unlimited, complete.
And when this is known fully, the rest of the kleshas cannot touch us. Like the sky-space accomodates all types of weather but remains ever-present and unchanged in itself, our true Self accomodates and witnesses all the apparent ups and downs of life but remains free, untouched, ever-the-same, never diminished.
Have you noticed that just reading this attentively and recognising the truth of it has the ability to make you feel a bit less confined, a tiny bit more open and free? That’s the power of knowledge, of vidya. Which is why, through studying yogic/vedic knowledge, our consciousness gradually expands from being identified with every storm cloud that blows across our minds to being identified with the Pure Space, the ever-present, blissful Witness Self.
The second klesha is asmita, the ego, the index finger. Pointing upwards it aptly resembles the letter ‘I’ 👆🏼. This I-ness by itself isn’t a problem but when the finger points to our body 👈🏼 and becomes strongly identified with something that is limited and temporary, it prevents us from knowing the real nature of I, the Self, Pure Consciousness, which is limitless, eternal, free.
And thinking that ‘I am just this body/mind’, asmita also creates a false sense of difference between ‘I, this body’ 👈🏼 and 👉🏼 ‘everybody/everything else’.
We take this identification so much for granted that it can sometimes be difficult to unmix it, but looking at other examples of ways that asmita, our sense of identification, quickly pins itself on something that we are not can be helpful to understand how it functions.
One example is when we jump in our seat when something scary suddenly happens on TV. We’ve quickly come to identify so much with a screen character that we feel fear and react as if our own body is in danger. Another example is how we might say ‘I backed into some railings when I was leaving work”. Of course we mean that we backed the car into the railings, but we can become identified with our cars in a similar way to our bodies.
This body/mind identification is helpful to the extent that it means we will probably try to look after our bodies and our cars, but it also causes a lot of suffering, because it means we believe thoughts like ‘I am fat’, ‘I am stupid’, ‘I am overwhelmed’ because we are identifying with a projected limitation rather than what we really are—unlimited Awareness, pure Beingness.
This kind of unmixing of our real Self from our thoughts and from the temporary vehicle that we are residing in is an important function of vedic/Advaita philosophy. We have to see our mistaken identity for what it is in order for our real identity to be revealed.
But it’s also just a step on the way.
Because, once that has happened, and we know ourselves to be the limitless Self, it becomes clear that our body and all the bodies, things and forms in creation are nothing but the forms of this same limitless Self, in the way that waves, whirlpools and icebergs are all forms of water. Then nothing has to be excluded, nothing has to be feared. All-encompassing Oneness prevails.
Raga and Dveysha
In the hand mnemonic 🖐🏼, raga and dveysha are represented by the third and fourth fingers, sticking together (sadly no suitable emoji available!)
Why sticking together? Because, although it might seem that these are opposite emotions, in yogic philosophy they are considered to be part of the same mental mechanism. In fact, they are often just referred to by one word—ragadveysha.
So what does being free from raga and dveysha really mean in yoga and why is it encouraged? Perhaps it’s easiest to start with what it doesn’t mean. Being free from raga doesn’t mean, for instance, that we should aim to stop having preferences. We don’t need to stop liking certain food, places or people.
After all, how would you have found yoga if not through following your instinct for what felt good, for what you liked?
And being free from dveysha doesn’t mean that you should stop having an instinctive dislike for things that are harmful, for example, or that you should just sit back and disengage when there are things that need changing.
I think the words that need more emphasis here are ‘being free from’. Being free from raga and dveysha means that we are neither attached to nor afraid of the emotions of liking and disliking. The nature of human experience is that some things meet our preferences and many things don’t. But if we are so attached to the things that we like that we’re terrified of losing them, or devastated when they change, and so afraid of experiencing the feeling of dislike that we try to avoid it at all costs, this causes a lot of suffering.
And these strong emotions are a hinderance to Self-awareness because they start to make you feel compelled to go towards (or away from) certain things rather than recognising that you are free to choose them (or not), because your true nature is freedom. And because they lead you to believe that contentment is dependent on particular external circumstances, whereas contentment is actually already present, quietly waiting to be recognised.
The fifth and final klesha, or obstacle to Self-knowledge, is abhinivesha, the fear of death. In the hand mnemonic 🖐🏼, it’s our little finger (or pinkie)—it might go unnoticed most of the time, but it’s always present and stronger than you might realise.
In investigating this klesha, it’s important to distinguish between the natural mechanisms that our body employs to keep it safe and the deeper fear that our mind has of non-existence. If you’re casually walking across the road and see that a car is heading towards you at full speed, your body will react by creating adrenaline to help you get out of the way quickly. Even though our minds might interpret that physical feeling as fear, this mechanism is obviously not something that it would be helpful to eliminate.
But abhinivesha is a deeper, existential fear that often only becomes obvious in certain circumstances —when we’re waiting for biopsy results, for example. Ultimately, it’s the fear of the loss of existence, but this same core fear can present itself as the fear of the loss of someone or something we love, particularly when we feel we will lose our imagined, future lives as a result.
Of course, this fear stems from the first klesha, which is avidya, or ignorance of our real nature. When we are unaware of our real Self, the unchanging, indestructible Being, Pure Consciousness, we believe that we are only the changing, time-limited body and that therefore our very being, our essence, will be lost when the body ‘dies’ (meaning, it gets recycled back into nature).
But, in fact, our essence has never been lost and can never be lost. It is not something that comes and goes. It does not have a beginning or an end. It can never be changed. Which is why spending time in the contemplation of and meditation on this Being is such a powerful practice, because its eternal nature starts to break through the limitations of our minds and reveal itself in its wholeness.
These directed practices work equally strongly for all the kleshas. And in time, they free you from their grip and reveal all five to be nothing more than imaginary thoughts that ultimately never touch or change your Being.