The first of the niyamas or the observances mentioned by Patanjali is what in Sanskrit is called saucha or purity. Here again, we are likely to associate purity with the usual meaning of it, its connotation as we are wont to understand in our life in human society. Just as the meaning of the yamas cannot be understood easily unless it is related to the great purpose of yoga, the niyamas also cannot be grasped with their full meaning unless their relationship to the aim of yoga is properly brought home to one’s mind by self-analysis. No discipline or practice has any sense or meaning unless it bears a connection with the purpose of yoga. The aim that we are after, the great goal of life, should have some connection with our endeavour. We do nothing in this world unnecessarily. Everything has a connection with the purpose that we wish to achieve finally. So, if we are students of yoga, the goal of yoga should bear a connection or relevance to any practice we may engage in, whether it be yama or niyama.
What we call purity is a peculiar attitude of ours with respect to all things related to us in the light of the great goal of yoga. It is difficult for an ordinary person to understand what is purity and what is impurity. We have no doubt a standard imposed upon our minds by our social routines, but this does not necessarily explain the deeper significance of saucha as understood in yogic practice. Any entanglement of consciousness in things or circumstances which have no constructive relationship with the goal of yoga is to be regarded as an impurity. This is the essential meaning behind the term saucha. If we do not take bath for several days, our body starts emanating a stink, and we feel that we are bodily impure, inasmuch as the stink or exudation of bad odour from the body on account of our not having bathed for several days is not in consonance with the principles of the maintenance of physical health; and health is regarded as the state of purity of the body. Inasmuch as health is considered as pure, anything that goes contrary to the maintenance of health is impure. Mostly, in orthodox circles, people understand by purity the cleanliness of the body. When we have taken bath and worn fresh clothes, we feel that we are pure. We feel that we can then enter a holy temple, and perform puja, and sit for our prayers, japa and meditation. This is a form of purity, and a necessary form of it.
By the word saucha or purity, however, the yoga text does not signify taking bath, though it may include even that. Because, there can be, in us, impurities other than bodily impurities like perspiration and dirt. For, we are not merely the body. We are many other things besides. So, while it is necessary to keep the body clean, it is not enough to keep only that clean and keep other things unclean. While purity does mean cleanliness of the body, it does not mean only that, because of the fact that man is not merely the body, but other things also. And every aspect of his being should be kept clean, and not just the body. The analysis of the personality of man would reveal that, besides being the body, he is the pranas inside, the sense organs, the mind, the intellect, and the various ramifications of The first of the niyamas or the observances mentioned by Patanjali is what in Sanskrit is called saucha or purity. Here again, we are likely to associate purity with the usual meaning of it, its connotation as we are wont to understand in our life in human society. Just as the meaning of the yamas cannot be understood easily unless it is related to the great purpose of yoga, the niyamas also cannot be grasped with their full meaning unless their relationship to the aim of yoga is properly brought home to one’s mind by self-analysis. No discipline or practice has any sense or meaning unless it bears a connection with the purpose of yoga. The aim that we are after, the great goal of life, should have some connection with our endeavour. We do nothing in this world unnecessarily. Everything has a connection with the purpose that we wish to achieve finally. So, if we are students of yoga, the goal of yoga should bear a connection or relevance to any practice we may engage in, whether it be yama or niyama. these inner layers of his personality. Five koshas are mentioned in the Vedanta philosophy—the sheaths as they are called—the annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijnanamaya and anandamaya koshas. These are the coats or the shirts or the involucre that man’s essential spirit is putting on. The personality of an individual consists, therefore, of layers of various densities, performing different functions, and entertaining different ideas and ideologies at different times, in the progress of evolution. So, while the body has to be kept pure, the pranas, the senses, the mind, the intellect—all these have to be kept pure too. Purity implies the freedom of oneself from everything which cannot be set in tune with, or set in harmony with, the ideal or the aim of yoga.
Falling ill physically is not in consonance with the purpose of yoga; the ill-health of the body affects every other thing that one aspires for in yoga. Similarly, there can be illness of other vestures of our personality on account of toxic matters of different types growing like mushrooms.
The velocity of the senses, in their movement towards objects of their own satisfaction, is also a toxic matter in the astral body. Patanjali does not go into all these minute details when he describes saucha. While we need not rack our heads too much in the analysis of all the minutiae involved in the observance of purity through the various vestures of the personality, we may in broad outline conclude that purity means the cleanliness of the body, the speech and the mind. In body, in speech and in mind, we have to be pure. People generally understand, by physical purity, not only a clean body, but also clean clothing, and a clean atmosphere. This physical purity is comparatively easy to maintain. Verbal purity is difficult, and more difficult still is mental purity or psychological purity. Mental purity is almost impossible for ordinary persons. While one can be very clean in the physical body, one can be very ugly in one’s speech, and very anti-social in one’s utterances—something of a very hurtful and pain-giving toxin in human society. One can behave badly in human society in spite of being a very clean person physically and in household surroundings. Any kind of injury inflicted upon another by harsh speech is not called for in the context of the observance of saucha through speech.
Ahimsa is the supreme virtue, finally speaking. Everything comes under that. All other principles of yama and niyama fall under the shelter of this vast, comprehensive principle called ahimsa, a thing which is very hard to understand, but which is the most important of all canons or prescriptions or standards of behaviour. The words that we utter, the way in which we express ourselves verbally, should be positive, constructive, helpful, healthy, and absorbent rather than repellent. The Bhagavad Gita has some verses, in one of its chapters, which make a reference to physical purity, verbal purity and mental purity. It is a little more difficult to understand what is mental purity.
That is the final crown on the whole system of the practice of saucha. When there is mental purity, the other purities automatically follow. A clean thought is a virtue, nay, more than a virtue. It is a great treasure, a great possession, a great solace, a great strength and a source of energy to one’s own self. But what is a clean thought? While we have made some sort of an analysis in regard to physical purity, physical cleanliness and verbal cleanliness, it will be a little more difficult to understand what is meant by mental cleanliness. But, there should be no difficulty if we are able to judge the value of a thought in the light of the goal of yoga. Is the thought consonant with the purpose of yoga practice? Is it helpful, or contributory in some way, to the purpose or the fulfilment of yoga, or is it a force that distracts attention and draws one’s energy in unwanted directions? The greatest purity of the mind is reflected in its capacity to entertain the thought of the goal of yoga. When one is deeply concentrating his mind on the great ideal of yoga to the exclusion of every other thought, he has attained the highest mental purity, and any other extraneous thought would be a distraction from it, a deviation from the highest norm of psychological purity. But, this is the final definition of psychological purity. There are lesser definitions of it, all of which are equally important. Any contemplation mentally of an object or a situation which is likely to draw the energy of the mind in a direction other than that of yoga may be regarded as an impure thought.
Usually, people regard mental impurity as a thought of desire. Any desire is regarded as mental impurity, generally speaking. But, this is a sweeping statement, and it is difficult to understand its real significance. Because, there are desires and desires of umpteen types. Some of them may be positive and helpful, some of them may be of a different nature. Here, one’s discretion has to be used with an independent judgement of the whole circumstance, or the guidance of a teacher has to be obtained where one’s own judgement is very difficult to form. However, in essence, we may say that mental purity is that condition of the mind where it is able to associate itself only with those conditions of living which positively pave the way to the realisation of the goal gradually, step by step, stage by stage. And therefore there are stages of mental purity which cannot be defined outright in bare logical terms without reference to the circumstances through which one has to pass. There may be hundreds of stages of mental purity, and a higher stage will appear as a state of greater purity than a lesser one; the lower one will look impure in the light of the higher, the higher will look purer in the light of the lower.
But, every stage may look impure, or every stage may look pure, from the way in which we look at it or the standpoint from which we judge it. Here again, we have a matter which is purely personal and individual, a matter which varies from circumstance to circumstance. A Guru’s guidance is necessary here also for us to understand where we stand.