Updated: Nov 23, 2021
What kind of samadhi are we getting to? We are all familiar with the eight-fold path as introduced by Parañjali in his yoga sutras. Yoga sutra 2.29 states: yama niyama āsana prāṇāyāma pratyāhāra dhāraṇā dhyāna samādhayo’ stāv aṅgāni. The limbs of Yoga are Yama (restraint), Niyama (observance), Asana (posture), Pranayama (regulation of the breathing), Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), Dharana (fixed concentration), Dhyana (meditation), Samadhi (perfect concentration). In chapter one Patañjali elaborates on the four types of samādhi that exist. These can either be samprajñata or asamprajñata, with or without conscious thought. In sutra 3.3 we find out that the final limb of the eightfold path kind of samadhi is of the samprajñata type, more specifically the Nirvitarka samādhi as defined in chapter one (Bryant, E.F., 2009, p 307).
In Samprajñata Samādhi the mind is focused on a single object, thereby restraining all other movements of the mind. The samprajñata samadhi is fourfold. According to Vyasa’s reading of the Yoga Sutras, Samprajnata samadhi is achieved by consecutive stages. Other commentators, such as Śaṅkara and Vācaspati Miśra suggest that the four are not so many stages but forms of consciousness that characterize samprajñata. The four types or stages (depending on your reading) are introduced in sutra I.17 to I.20. In sutra I.42 to I.46 the terms Sa-vitarkā, Nirvitarka and Sa-vicārā, and nirvicārā samāpattiḥ are introduced. In sutra I.46 we learn that samāpatti is actually a form of Sa-bīja Samādhi, Samadhi with seed. Thus, a form of Samprajñata Samādhi. Therefore, we can organize the types of Samprajñata Samādhi from gross to subtle as follows;
Vitarka: savitarka and nirvitarka samāpatti
Vicāra: savicara and nirvicara samāpatti
Ānanda samadhi and
The first two Vitarka and Vicara implicate proper utilization of the conventional mental processes of deliberation and reflection in order to understand our true spiritual identity, the Purusa. Vitarka and vicāra are further subdivided into Savitarka, Nirvitarka, savicāra, and nirvicāra. Vitarka or conscious deliberation on a gross physical object happens at the level of the mahābhūtas, the final elements that evolved from prakṛti. In Savitarka Samapatti, the yogi’s experience of an object is colored by conceptual thought. It is blended with words and concepts. The yogi’s absorption of the object includes a level of insight as to the object’s name and meaning. The subconscious samskaras of recognition are still not fully latent or inactive. Bryant, F.E (2009) describes how Hariharānanda uses the sun as an example for the types of realizations. In Savitarka samādhi one focuses on the sun, aware of its name and function, and recognizes it as an object of a certain shape, composed of fire atoms and situated at a certain distance (Bryant, F.E., 2009, p142-168; Sutton, N., 2016, p77-120).
In Nirvitarka samādhi, the mind is empty from conceptualization. There is no Samskaric memory in terms of recognition and what the object of meditation is. The mind is exclusively colored by the object of focus. There is no cognitive analysis of the object’s name and function. The mind is no longer an organ of knowledge, it has transformed itself into the object, free from any cognitive identification or self-awareness. In Nirvitarka samādhi, one sees the sun as a luminous object in the sky but is not aware of its name, size, distance, function, shape, composition, etc. It is difficult to describe such a state because by using words one is already conceptualizing (Bryant, F.E., 2009, p142-168; Sutton, N., 2016, p77-120).
Vicāra samādhi goes beyond conscious deliberation and involves contemplation on the subtle aspects of the object, the tanmātras. In Savicāra Samādhi, the yogi perceives the subtle aspects of the object, but the yogi still has some level of awareness of space and time. The object is still perceived as existing in the present time, rather than the past or the future, and it is still bound by space. In savicāra samādhi on the sun, for example, one perceives the subtle element of light. But one is still aware of the specific location of the sun in the universe and by the fact that it is being perceived now, not yesterday or tomorrow (Bryant, F.E., 2009, p142-168; Sutton, N., 2016, p77-120).
Consequently in nirvicāra samādhi, the yogi is not bound anymore by space and time. The yogi is no longer aware of the here and now. The yogi focuses on the subtle nature of the object thereby transcending space and time. The yogi experiences the subtle elements of the object as underpinning all objects at all times. For example, in nirvicāra samādhi, one sees the sun as pure omnipresent eternal light (Bryant, F.E., 2009, p142-168; Sutton, N., 2016, p77-120).
In Ānanda samādhi even Vicara is transcended. This stage of pure spiritual joy arises through contact between the focused mind and our spiritual nature. The concentration consists solely of the sense of pure bliss. Ananda samadhi is awareness of the internal organ through which external objects are grasped, rather than external objects themselves. The mind becomes absorbed in some aspects of the instruments of cognition themselves rather than being concentrated on the gross constituents of an external object of the senses (Sutton, N., 2016, p77-120).
Finally, there is asmitā samādhi, the closest state of meditation to buddhi or ahankāra. It is a changeless sense of ‘I am’ (अस्मि Asmi = I am). In this stage, the Citta of the yoga is now so sāttvic and pure that it produces a very refined (but nonetheless prakṛtic) type of blissfulness. When penetrating even further into the prakṛtic elements or reality, the yogi encounters pure buddhi, from which all the other things have evolved. At this stage, there is nothing external of itself to meditate on anymore. At least not in the realm of prakṛti. Therefore, the only Puruṣa now remains as an object of contemplation. By reflecting consciousness back to its source, the pure Citta of the yogi experiences I-Am-Ness, the asmitā stage of Sabija samādhi. The yogi now becomes aware of puruṣa itself as pure consciousness by means of its reflection in buddhi. However, because the awareness is still mediated by buddhi, it is still realization with conscious thought or Sabija samādhi, with seed. Thus, the samprajñata types of realization are based on reflective insight. The yogi realizes that there is a soul that is above and beyond what it considers itself. The consciousness of the puruṣa is still channeled through Citta. The Citta is so pure and sāttvic in this stage like a luminous mirror in which puruṣa can see its own reflection. (Bryant, F.E., 2009, p142-168; Sutton, N., 2016, p77-120).
Asamprajñata's realization, on the contrary, is experiential. Asamprajñata samādhi does not require the involvement of any of the prakṛtic elements (mind, intellect, ego, etc). It is seedless, Nirbija. Here we can see how Patañjali offers us a progressive path: from creating the right sattvic mindset (the serenity of mind or Citta-prasādana from sutra I.33) to samāpatti, which is the preliminary stage of samādhi, but still Sa-bīja. Eventually leading to nir-bīja samādhi, the ultimate stage of yogic perfection. In this stage, there is an unchanging awareness of the Purusha without conscious reasoning. The puruṣa becomes purely self-aware. It is no longer aware of Prakṛti because there are no objects to retain its awareness. The mind is not supported by any active thought, not even the object of meditation. There is no awareness of space or time because one has no external awareness of anything prakṛtic at all. There is no perception or cognition at this stage because the vr̥ttis of the mind have ceased, they only exist as potential. The samskaras are latent seeds and will not sprout into active thought. The mind is empty of all thoughts and therefore seems nonexistent. There is no longer any object presented to the puruṣa and thus for the first time, it can become self-aware. This highest state of samadhi can only be achieved through complete vairagya or renunciation of the world. (Bryant, F.E., 2009, p142-168; Sutton, N., 2016, p77-120).
When we look at the eight limbs, the first five limbs seem to be external, when compared to the last three. They are more about the purification of the body. They are the yogi’s preparation for samprajñāta samādhi. The three final limbs are more internal when compared to the first. They are more removed from the senses and related to the purification of the mind. They bring the yogi to the actual state of Samprajñāta Samādhi (Bryand, F.E., 2009, 314-315; Buhrman, S., n.d.).
However, the ultimate goal is to surpass even that and reach the state of asamprajñāta samādhi, ‘beyond higher knowledge’. A state that is nir-bīja samādhi, without seed. When there is no object of concentration. The yogi’s consciousness is merged into absolute consciousness, puruṣa. So dhārana, dyāna, and conventional samādhi (which is still Sa-bīja samādhi) would be considered external when compared to nir-bīja samādhi. Because even the last three limbs require the mind to focus on an object, and both the mind and all its objects are prakṛtic in nature and therefore external to the puruṣa (Bryand, F.E., 2009, 314-315; Buhrman, S., n.d.).
Bryant, F.E. (2009) The Yoga sūtras of Patañjali: a new edition, translation, and commentary with insights from the traditional commentators. North Point Press.
Buhrman, S., (n.d.) The Stages of samādhi According to the Ashtanga Yoga Tradition, Yoga International, retrieved from: https://yogainternational.com/article/view/the-stages-of-samadhi-according-to-the-ashtanga-yoga-tradition
Sutton, N. (2016) The Philosophy of Yoga. Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies Online Education initiative.
Sutton, N. (2021) Exploring the Yoga sūtras. Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies Continuing Education Department.
Wikipedia (2021) Samkhya, retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samkhya