Nescience, I-am-ness, attachment, aversion and the fear-to-die are the Kleshas
In this Sutra Patanjali starts a scientific and meticulous explanation of one of the main pillars in his science of yoga: the theory of kleshas. This discussion will accompany us for 22 more sutras. The first and main message to our Western minds is that the science of yoga could never be supported by speculative approaches, as in Western philosophy. Yoga is a matter of practice, and the only understanding of its deeper realities can come as a result of personal experimentation and self-realization. “To think that you know” is therefore the first klesha.
When you enter your yoga practice, the first thing you learn is that you don’t know, and that what you thought you knew came from others and isn’t of any use for your own happiness.
That is why avidya is the first klesha, the one from where the others originate. Avidya is the opposite of vidya, which is true knowledge or science. In the context of yoga, science and knowledge have nothing to do with “intellectual comprehension”. Knowledge comes from experimentation, from life, from practice. Anthony de Mello tells a nice story about this concept:
Uwais, the Sufi, was once asked:
“What has Grace brought you?”
“When I wake in the morning I feel like a man who is not sure he will live till evening.”
Said the questioner:
“But doesn’t everyone know this?”
“They certainly do. But not all of them feel it.”
No one ever became drunk just intellectually understanding the word wine.
Avidya (literally translated as nescience) means understanding without experiencing, without practice. Asmita (I-am-ness), raga (attachment), dvesha (aversion) and abhinivesha (will-to-live) are in fact all contained in the concept of Avidya, they all are ignorance. The great master Vyasa defines the kleshas as the five forms of viparyaya (ignorance, misconception): which in sutra I.6 Patanjali defines as one of the main origin of the vrittis, the fluctuations of the mind the Yoga aims to attenuate.
The afflictions are the five forms of wrong cognition. When they become active they strengthen the say of the Gunas [drown us deeper into materialism and further from consciousness], bring about change, set in motion the flow of cause and effect [karma] and in conjunction with one another bring about the fructification of action.
The kleshas produce kleshas as karma produces further karma, this process keeps us from becoming free. They arise out of wrong cognition (viparyaya). If this wrong knowledge is replaced with correct knowledge, they will cease and no more karma will be produced. The chain of cause and effect will be broken by the knowledge that we are, in fact, consciousness and not what we identify with. But as the sufi story reminds us, this is not something we may intellectually comprehend, we just have to get drunk by this new sort of knowledge by a constant practice of kriya yoga.