The Kleshas: The Root Cause of Pain and Suffering

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The Kleshas are obstacles to our spiritual progress. By understanding the five Kleshas, learning to reduce their stranglehold on life and destroying them, we can reduce pain and suffering.

Life teaches us that pain and suffering are an essential part of existence. This thought is ingrained within our minds and we often fail to take measures to identify the origin of what causes our pain in order to alleviate it.  

Some 2000 years ago, Sage Patanjali – the father of modern yoga – identified five causes of pain and suffering, which he named the Kleshas. Like the muddy water that prevents one from seeing the ground at the bottom of the pond, the Kleshas hide our true self from us.

The Kleshas are obstacles to our spiritual progress. By understanding the five Kleshas, learning to reduce their stranglehold on life and destroying them, we can reduce pain and suffering, and finally get a glimpse of Atman – the inner self. The five Kleshas are avidya (ignorance), asmita or (selfishness), raga (attachment), dvesha (aversion) and abhinivesha (fear).

The First Klesha: Avidya

Avidya is a Sanskrit word that can be translated to ignorance. It must be mentioned here that the term ‘ignorance’ doesn’t mean the lack of knowledge, but the unawareness of reality.

We perceive the world through our senses. We see places, hear sounds, and touch objects. We learn languages, mathematics, sciences, history, geography and various other fields of study. All these are a part of worldly knowledge. Not knowing any of these is not considered Avidya.

Avidya is spiritual ignorance, not understanding the true self. For ages, people have been so focused on understanding the external that they failed to introspect, observe, and understand one’s true self.

The Advaita Vedanta philosophy explores the concept of Avidya and compares it with Brahman, Atman, and Maya. By understanding what Advaita Vedanta has to say about Atman and Brahman we get a clearer picture of reality and one’s true self.

Non-dualism or oneness is the founding principle of the Advaita philosophy. It says that Atman (the higher self) and Brahman (absolute reality) are one and the same. In addition, many saints and yogis believe that everything that exists, the whole universe, is Brahman or part of Brahman. Avidya or ignorance and Maya or illusion prevent us from realising the truth that we (you, me, and everyone else) are part of Brahman.

The Second Klesha: Asmita

Asmita means selfishness or egoism, but the modern definition of ego is quite different from the one put forward by Patanjali. Ego entails thinking of oneself as better than others, considering others as unequal and inferior to oneself. But, Patanjali said that this is just part of the self-ego.

According to the great sage, Asmita is wrongfully assuming the temporary aspects of our lives – our physical, mental, and emotional attributes – as our real nature, the true self. Great yogis do not believe our true self changes, in fact, our soul, the Atman is one with the Brahman, and it’s the one aspect of ourselves that remains constant.

Obviously, when we deny the true nature of our self, the Asmita or ego in us rears its ugly head. Instead of being part of the whole, we become a unit of one. We think highly of our self, take pride in our education, appearance, wealth, and position.

Sage Patanjali says egoism also includes the mirror opposite of these characteristics – feeling ashamed of our appearance, position in life, education, etc. When pride, shame, or both take hold of our lives, we focus only on the external and non-permanent attributes. We start developing attachment or hate towards everything and this further leads to pain and suffering.

The Third Klesha: Raga

The third klesha is Raga or Attachment. The great sage who gave us the yoga sutras said that raga is identifying oneself with what we like. We let likes and personal preferences dictate the way we look, perceive, and deal with the world.

Attachment is an intrinsic part of human nature. It leads to happiness, which in turn encourages attachment. Suppose, we are deeply attached to a person, object, or idea, and our actions that promote such attachment like being with that person, possessing the object, or pursuing the idea, give rise to happiness.

Our brain is programmed to seek happiness and undertake activities that increase the chance of attaining happiness. So, in the pursuit of happiness, the attachment to the constituents of the material world increases.

Instead of viewing the external world as an extension of ourselves, our Asmita or ego takes a dualistic view – ‘me’ and ‘others’. When we do not derive the expected happiness from our attachments in the external world we feel alienated and the result is pain and suffering.

We suffer because we let our attachment and desire corrupt our view of the self and the world.

The Fourth Klesha: Dvesha

Dvesha and Raga are two sides of the same coin; while Raga is attachment, Dvesha is hatred or aversion. For the sake of personal convenience, we make a mental list of things we like and dislike, people we like and dislike, ideas we like or dislike, etc.

We let our strong emotions, our attachments and aversions control our interaction with the world. Evidently, we would want to carry on doing things that give us pleasure and avoid those that we perceive to be bad, wrong, harmful or deterring to happiness.

Here too, Dvesha promotes dualistic thinking and acts as a veil, preventing us from seeing the true self. The third and fourth kleshas influence our thinking process and force us to see everything as positive or negative. By assigning labels to situations, circumstances, and outcomes, we unnecessarily give space to fear, tension, and anxiety, leading to further pain and suffering. In addition, Dvesha clouds our judgment, further reducing the chance of knowing the true self.

It’s easy to recognise and manage Dvesha because it is a strong emotion – dislike, disquiet, apprehension, sadness, etc.

The Fifth Klesha: Abhinivesha

Abhinivesha or fear is the fifth and final klesha. It encompasses all the other kleshas within it. Abhinivesha is generally taken to be the fear of death, but its meaning can be extended to also include the fear of change and the fear of uncertainty. Abhinivesha acts as another rope that drags us down and becomes an obstacle to our spiritual growth.     

It’s also a continuation of Raga (attachment) and Dvesha (aversion). Our attachment to an object invariably gives rise to the fear of not possessing it, or if we have it, the fear of losing it. Similarly, if we deeply hate an outcome, we fear it may happen to us.

In most cases, Abhinivesha manifests as the fear of losing someone or something that’s dear to us. Such situations cause the most pain. One way of handling these circumstances is to reconcile yourself with the thought of the non-permanence of human life. At some point, we need to accept the idea that every beginning has an end. We need to rise above the fear (Abhinivesha) and realise the non-duality of the true self.

Freeing Oneself from the Shackles of the Kleshas

The Kleshas cling on to us at all times, at every stage of life and at every situation. Even when we are happy and content in life, there is some part of us fearing that the happy phase will eventually come to an end.

Some argue that the five Kleshas (ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion, and fear) are the seeds that develop into emotions such as desire, motivation, caution, love, pride, etc. These feelings or emotions and the kleshas that give rise to them are not bad per se. They are part of human existence.

The problem arises when these kleshas begin to dominate our actions; when they drag us away from our true self. Sage Patanjali and numerous other ancient saints and yogis have recognised these five kleshas as the root cause of pain and suffering.

The only way to free ourselves from the shackles of the kleshas is to realise we all form part of the ultimate. This can be achieved through the practices of Dhyana (medtation), Swadhyaya (self-study), and Tapas (Austerity).

Through Tapas or Self-discipline, we can learn to control our senses. Instead of letting the senses become our masters, controlling our actions and dictating every move; we gain mastery over them. Tapas will help us realise that there is more to us than just physical reality.

When we realise that the physical reality isn’t the only reality, we begin to seek the truth. We can understand ‘who we really are’ by practicing self-study or Swadhyaya. And, as the final measure, to extenuate the grip of the kleshas and finally destroy them, we can use meditation to reach the true self.