The Five Kleshas: Causes of Suffering

The Five Kleshas: Causes of Suffering

Understood in both Buddhism and Hinduism as blocks on the path to enlightenment or Samadhi, the kleshas are thought of as ‘afflictions’ or negative mental states. Directly translated from Sanskrit as ‘poison’, they’re the various ‘toxins’ or poisons that cause suffering through life. Overcoming the kleshas is thought to lead to the end of suffering, and the ultimate liberation from the repeated cycle of birth, death and rebirth, known as the wheel of Samsara.

Poisons on The Path

We all come across challenges in life – that’s what builds character and makes us stronger – but having the tools to overcome these challenges is something Yoga philosophy can help with. Much of the wisdom passed down through thousands of years makes as much sense today as it did back then, as the various causes of suffering – as we’ll see – are no different now than they were all those years ago either.

Identified in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the five Kleshas or ‘afflictions’ are: Avidya (ignorance), Asmita (egoism), Raga (attachment), Dvesa (aversion or hatred), and Abinivesah (clinging to life and fear of death). Some of the kleshas afflict us on a daily basis at a subtle level, yet others can be overwhelming and cause great pain. What all these ‘poisons’ do have in common however, is that they stop us from fully enjoying life, from being truly present in the now, and from having a sense of freedom. Read on to find out how each affliction can effect us, and how this knowledge can help us overcome these challenges on the path to Samadhi.

Avidya

The Sanskrit word vidya means true knowledge, a deep inner knowing and higher wisdom. The prefix ‘a’ essentially means ‘not’, so in this sense we can understand that the word ‘avidya’ refers to a lack of knowledge or misunderstanding. Within the Yoga Sutras, avidya is often translated as ‘misconception, lack of spiritual knowledge, or spiritual ignorance’, and it is this first klesha that is the root cause of the others – many texts even describe avidya as the trunk of the tree of suffering, with all other kleshas branching off of it.

When it comes to reaching enlightenment, you may have read in a previous blog post that the true meaning of Samadhi (at least in my opinion) isn’t a firework display of joy and ecstacy, but a sense of contentment and equanimity, and an understanding of true reality. Avidya is possibly one of the most challenging obstacles to overcome with regards to finding contentment, as it shows us the world through a very narrow and false lens, which is often thought of as a veil. With the veil of avidya covering our metaphorical eyes, we don’t see reality, rather we see what we think is reality.

Each of us has a perception of what the world is like, made up of our past experiences, expectations, and what we believe, meaning that each of us has virtually created our own realities, which could be entirely different from each other, yet attempt to co-exist in harmony. When afflicted by avidya, we believe that our thoughts are true, that our perceptions are reality, and that what we individually believe is ‘right’ is the truth. This lack of knowledge and wisdom is the most difficult to overcome not because there’s so much to learn, but because there’s so much to un-learn and let go of. Avidya gives birth to all the other kleshas, which cause fear, pain and sorrow, simply because we tend to believe our own perceptions and thought patterns, rather than remove the veil and see life for what it really is.  

Asmita

First mentioned in the Mahabharata and Ramayana, the word Smita was used to describe smiling, but in the texts the Shishupala Vadha and Pajcaratra, the word refers to expanding and blossoming. This expression of Smita (now a popular Hindu female name) is a wonderful way to understand what asmita – the exact opposite – means.

This second klesha is all about letting the sense of ‘I – Me – My’ become the most important thing in life. We can see this currently in the millennial generation; the age group with possibly the strongest sense of ‘I’, but also a huge amount of emotional and psychological suffering. When we speak about the ego, the origin of this word was never meant to denote something intrinsically ‘evil’, but the simple (or not-so simple) part of us that is our personality, and in Feud’s theory it is found between the chaotic and primitive ‘id’ and the moral conscience of the super-ego.

The ego was originally supposed to be the part of us that combined our nature and nurture, and made decisions based upon reasoning. The suffering arises however, when we become ego-focused, and instead of expanding and blossoming, our awareness shrinks and we become selfish. The more ‘I’ am the most important thing in the world, and the more focus put upon ‘me’, the more pressure ‘I’ feel, because it seems as though the whole world revolves around ‘me’. Any disruption or upset that occurs is felt to be much bigger than it really is, because with an ego-focussed person, their world is far smaller than a less ego-focused person, with a feeling of being connected to the outside world, and a sense of some sort of higher consciousness or truth.

Raga and Dvesa

Attachment and aversion can push and pull us in all directions, meaning we’re forever at the mercy of what we need, want or like, and what we fear or hate. This push-pull effect is another way of realising we aren’t actually seeing reality for what it really is, but reacting moment-by-moment to the personal likes and dislikes we’ve built up over time.

In BKS Iyengar’s Light on the Yoga Sutras, he says that Raga and Dvesa afflict us on an emotional level, and are imprints of pleasures and pains. Physically, he says they’re located within the hypothalamus or subconscious part of the brain. The subconscious mind effects our behaviours, and seems to be so deeply ingrained that we may not even realise we have certain attachments or aversions. Whilst it may be more clear to see why having an aversion or repulsion towards something can cause suffering (it’s contracting, not expanding or blossoming, causes stress, anxiety, and is very consuming on a psychological level, leaving little room for spiritual progression, let alone enlightenment), it may not be obvious as to why attachments cause suffering.

Feeling attached to a pleasurable experience can happen instantaneously – with the taste of chocolate, the smell of coffee, or the sensation of a drug. All of these things create a release of chemicals that stimulate the brain to want more, and if we continue to give it more regularly enough, we can become attached to it. In terms of relationships, we can become attached or dependent upon other people if they seem to give us some form of safety or provide affection, and regarding material possessions, we can clearly see how easy it is to become attached to a piece of technology or social media platform.

Whilst these pleasurable experiences may feel good initially, most of them will create some form of suffering if we allow it to, because once that pleasurable experience is over, we often feel sad about it, and wish for that pleasure to return. In Buddhist terms, this is known as ‘craving’, and is a huge cause of suffering. If we’re not satisfied, we’re craving, and if we obtain that which we crave, we cement that attachment within us, which means we’re never truly in the present moment.

How to overcome attachment, then? It’s not about avoiding any sort of pleasure, but realising the impermanent nature of pleasure and pain, and being observant to our thoughts and behaviours. The phrase ‘listen to your body’ may be over-used, but can be incredibly useful when dealing with attachment. Ask yourself; Do I need this, or do I want it? Is this truly right for me, or am I attached to it?

Abhinivesa

The ultimate fear is the last of the kleshas, and the one that could be seen as the root of fear itself. Fear of death. In parts of the East like India and Nepal, death isn’t so much of a taboo subject, whilst here in the West, it’s usually something we try to avoid speaking about, far less delving into in detail about it. With important Hindu and Buddhist texts based upon the notion that you are indeed not your body, but something far greater and more profound, those in Eastern cultures are regularly reminded of the soul, the Self and that there is nothing to fear in this life.

Within the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna speaks of the Self with the words; “Swords cannot pierce it, fire cannot burn it,water cannot wet it,and wind cannot dry it,” and even though it’s a hard task to ask anyone to truly let go of the fear of what happens at the end of life, releasing the grip of fearfully clinging to life can have a knock-on effect that impacts all areas of life right now. Rather than a clinging, this lighter holding of life makes us more open to new experiences, more grateful of life, more appreciative of our loved ones, more adventurous, with less attachment, less hatred, less  ‘I – ness’, less fear, more engagement in everyday life, and the ability to be truly present and immersed in the moment of now.

Emma Newlyn

Emma is a 500hr qualified Yoga teacher, musician, massage therapist, cook, and writer. Having grown up surrounded by Yoga and meditation, Emma began her practice at a young age and has continued to study and develop her understanding of Yoga on a daily basis. Training internationally with inspirational teachers, Emma’s passions now lie primarily in philosophy and Yoga off the mat. Emma currently teaches regularly in Sussex, co-leading teacher trainings, retreats, workshops and kirtans, and also manages the Brighton Yoga Festival.