Sense Objects: What the Yoga Sutras Say About Perception and Reality

sense objects

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali devotes several verses to the discussion of sense objects and how we perceive them. He says these objects have an existence that does not depend on our perception of them. How does this affect our yoga practice? The short answer is, it depends.

Sense Objects and Time

In sutra 4.12, we’re told that the nature of sense objects is there from the beginning. They may appear to change over time, but they remain essentially the same. As Reverend Jaganath Carrera explains, as things change, “their previous forms dissolve into the past and become dormant possibilities.”

The past and future exist as the essential nature (of Prakriti) to manifest (perceptible) changes in an object’s characteristics. (sutra 4.12)

Over time, we may see things differently, but it is our perception, not the inherent nature of the object that is changing. This sutra helps cultivate non-attachment. We recognize that new things become old, and old things give way to the new.

When we’re able to see sense objects fluidly, we have less difficulty letting go or going with the flow of change. Observing deterioration, for example, is no more troubling than watching something develop and grow. It’s all the same.

Sense Objects and the Three Gunas

Whether manifested or subtle, these characteristics belong to the nature of the gunas. (sutra 4.13)

The three gunas—tamas, rajas, and sattva—govern how we see reality. There are many translations of these words, but you can think of tamas as darkness, rajas as activity, and sattva as being. Sattva is a pure state, while tamas is a kind of negative state and rajas can be a sort of self-centered, frantic need for activity.

The point here is not to define the gunas, but to see that all sense objects contain all three of them. Some may be more apparent than others, and the balance changes all the time. As the balance changes, the objects also appear to change, but only because we are focusing on a different view of the object’s qualities.

The reality of things is due to the uniformity of the gunas’ transformation. (sutra 4.14)

Even though things and beings change over time, their essence remains the same, because the gunas transform in a uniform way.

It’s All in How You Look At It

Due to differences in various minds, perception of even the same object may vary. (sutra 4.15)

We’ve all experienced what sutra 4.15 describes. One person attends an event and enjoys it, while another is miserable. You like broccoli, but your brother thinks it tastes awful. A politician speaks, and his supporters think his message can transform the country; his adversaries she him as dishonest and destructive.

Nor does an object’s existence depend upon a single mind, for if it did, what would become of that object when that did not perceive it? (sutra 4.16)

No matter how many ways an object (or person or experience) is perceived, the truth exists independently of anyone’s perception of it!

These sutras remind us that perception is not necessarily reality. However, perception is what we rely on to determine “our truth.”

In our yoga practice, we can use this awareness of the nature of sense objects to cultivate open-mindedness. Rather than remain stuck in limited ways of perceiving things, we can transcend to a more expansive point of view. That view will bring us closer to truth.

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Maria Kuzmiak

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