Verse 23: What is Discerning Intelligence?

adhyavasāyaḥ buddhiḥ dharmaḥ jñānaṃ virāga aiśvaryam |
sāttvikam-etad-rūpaṃ tāmasam-asmāt-viparyastam ||

adhyavasāya – mental effort
buddhi – Discerning Intelligence (Mahat)
dharma – highest duty
jñāna – knowledge
virāga – dispassionate
aiśvarya – power

sattva – clarity
tāmasa – ignorance
viparyasta – opposite

It is mental effort that is affected by the dominant Guna.

  1. Discerning Intelligence (Mahat/Buddhi) is the first caused thing (special object) to arise out of the conjunction of Spirit and Nature. This makes it “closest” (of all the other things that will be caused) to Spirit – to the the source of the quality of “knowing.”
  2. Discerning Intelligence is mental effort. It is its function. It is not a thing that does. The doer and the doing are one and the same.
  3. The qualities that manifests from Discerning Intelligence depend on the dominant Guna at any given time.
  4. Rajas is always present in Mahat because discernment itself is an activity, a movement.
  5. Therefore, the manifested nature of Mahat depends on which of the other two Gunas is dominant: Sattva or Tamas.
  6. Mahat takes on certain qualities when Sattva is dominant and opposite qualities when Tamas is dominant.
  7. When Sattva is dominant Mahat takes on these qualities:
    1. It is virtuous: it knows what is good and right and expresses as generosity, perseverance, right action and compassion.
    2. It is discerning: it is able to discern between Primordial Nature (Prakrti) as of the three Gunas and Spirit (Purusa) which is not of the three Gunas.
    3. It is dispassionate: it presents no craving. It craves neither worldly things (objects, relations and affairs) nor divine things (powers and attainment of heavenly position).
    4. It is masterful: it inhabits the manifest with mastery (which can seem like having super-powers).
  8. When Tamas is dominant Mahat takes on opposite qualities:
    1. It leans towards vice.
    2. It is ignorant.
    3. It experiences attachment in the form of likes and aversions.
    4. It is impeded and weak.


Commentaries provide more details about these eight qualities of Mahat, including references to other texts and sources.

  1. Virtue
    1. Reference to the five Yamas (Yoga Sura 2.30) and five Niyamas (Yoga Sutra 2.32)
  2. Wisdom
    1. External knowledge includes the six branches of the Vedas (pronounciaton, ritual, grammar, etymology, prosody and astronomy), the Puranas, Nyaya, Mimamsa and the Dharmasastras.
    2. Internal knowledge is the discernment between Nature (Prakrti) and Spirit (Purusa).
  3. Dispassion – is a four-fold evolution in which impurities (likes and dislikes which dwell in the mind and prompt the sense organs to move outwards and seek experience) are removed.
    1. Yatamana samjna – initial efforts for removing the impurities and keeping the senses from running towards their objects yield mixed results.
    2. Vyatireka samjna – is the recognition that the results (of Yatamana samjna) are mixed.
    3. Ekendriya samjna – is when the sense organs no longer scramble for objects and what is left is a craving in the mind.
    4. Vasikara samjna – is when the craving itself ceases (Yoga Sutra 1.15)
  4. Powers – there are 8 powers:
    1. Anima – the ability to become atomic and inhabit anything (even a stone).
    2. Mahima – magnification which makes you large – to occupy all space.
    3. Laghima – levitation – the ability to become light as a feather and able to dance on a beam of the sun.
    4. Prapti – reach – the ability to attain what one desires – to touch the moon with the fingertips.
    5. Garima – the ability to become heavy.
    6. Prakamya – the power to do what one wants.
    7. Isitva – sovereignty over production, absorption and arrangement of the elements.
    8. Vasitva – the ability to exert control over anything.

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