Intro to the 5 Kleshas: Causes of Suffering

Suffering is part of the human experience, and we will all experience it in unique ways.  In our lives we will experience setbacks, confusion, and even death.  Yoga teaches us to approach suffering with acceptance and curiosity.  As a result, we are less thrown off by our experiences.  This type of suffering is external, but there is another kind of suffering: The kind we create in our minds. 

If you were to trace back the origin of a particular kind of suffering you experience, you might find that it originated in your head.  In yogic philosophy, this type of suffering is referred to as the five kleshas.  Klesha means “affliction” or “poison”.  They are mental distortions that cause suffering by altering our perception of reality.  The five kleshas are also known as the five causes of suffering, afflictions, or obstacles to enlightenment. 

The five kleshas are defined in the Yoga Sutras, written between 200 and 500 B.C. by the Indian sage Patanjali.  The Sutras are the most referenced book on yoga, and they are all about how to transcend suffering through mental liberation.  In this post, I’ll be referencing the Sri Swami Satchidananda translation, available here.  The five kleshas, as defined in the Sutras, are:

Sutra 2.3: avidyā-asmitā-rāga-dveṣa-abhiniveśā kleśa

Ignorance, egoism, attachment, hatred and clinging to bodily life are the five obstacles. (Swami Satchidananda translation).

The five kleshas are what take us out of the present moment and cause us to miss out on life’s experiences.  They distort our reality and can even dictate our behaviors and physical responses.  Ignorance, egoism, attachment, avoidance, and fear of death are human mental tendencies that require acknowledgement and effort to overcome.  In this post, we’ll learn briefly about each of the kleshas, and the next five posts will discuss each one in more detail, including ways to reduce their impact in our lives.    

If you were to trace back the origin of a particular kind of suffering you experience, you might find that it originated in your head.  In yogic philosophy, this type of suffering is referred to as the five kleshas.  Klesha means “affliction” or “poison”. 

The Five Kleshas

Avidya – Ignorance

The word ‘ignorant’ has a negative connotation.  We think of stupidity, or worse.  But ignorance simply means to not know, much different than knowing and continuing to behave in a certain way.  Avidya in terms of yoga means to mistake the unreal for the real or as the Sutras put it:

“the Non-self for the Self”. 

Avidya is when we believe that the external things in life are what matter, and we fail to regard ourselves as spiritual beings.  Avidya is considered the ultimate cause of suffering, meaning all other kleshas exist as a result of it. 

Asmita – I-ness, ego

Asmita is the result of avidya; we don’t understand that we are a spiritual being, so we are out of touch with our true purpose. We identify ourselves by our jobs, our relationships, our hobbies and create an image in our mind of who we are, or who we are supposed to be.  All of our mental energy is then focused on appeasing that image, our ego.  The ego represents a self-image that we mistake for our real Self.  We are first and foremost spiritual beings, so the disconnect between our real Self and our imagined Self causes confusion and blindness in our lives. 

Raga – Attachment

Raga is attachment; to our desires, material possessions, or anything that provides a pleasurable experience.  As humans, it is in our nature to seek things we’ve identified as pleasurable.  But this seeking often creates suffering for us when we can’t obtain that which we desire.  Raga means that we attach ourselves to things that make us feel good and develop a preference toward them that will often result in disappointment.  The Sutras say:

“Attachment is that which follows identification of pleasurable experiences.”

Dvesha – avoidance/repulsion

Dvesha is avoidance, the opposite of raga.  It is when we identify things as negative and make conscious and subconscious effort to avoid them.  We avoid people, places, things, situations, even our soul’s own prompting for change or healing.  Just like it is in our nature to seek pleasurable things, it is also in our nature to avoid unpleasurable things.  Dvesha is resistance, and resistance causes stress and anxiety.  We cannot always avoid things that are unpleasurable, so when we resist or attempt to avoid these things, we create suffering for ourselves. 

Identifying the mental patterns that hold us back in life is the first step in overcoming them.  Learning about the kleshas encourages us to look at how our thoughts might be causing suffering and gives names to the ways we tend to torture ourselves. 

Abhinivesah – fear of death

This klesha can also be defined as ‘clinging to bodily life’.  You may have heard of someone, or even know someone, who is at peace with themselves to the point of feeling neutral about death, but for most of us, the thought of dying is scary. 

Regardless of our religious beliefs or what we believe happens after we die, none of us really know.  The fear of death is buried deep in our subconscious, and according to the Sutras this is because we have experienced it before:

“The desire to cling to life is inherent both in the ignorant and in the learned.  This is because the mind retains impressions of the death experience from many previous incarnations.”

Final Thoughts

Identifying the mental patterns that hold us back in life is the first step in overcoming them.  Learning about the kleshas encourages us to look at how our thoughts might be causing suffering and gives names to the ways we tend to torture ourselves.  Using this framework, we can focus our energy on identifying and redirecting our thoughts when they fall under the category of one of the kleshas. 

At Inspiring Actions, we offer a variety of classes and events to help you identify the tendencies of your thoughts.  Whether it be a heated flow class, a restorative yin class, or a meditation session, we have something that will help you get in touch with your true Self.  Click here for our full list of classes, and here for a list of our special events!  Taking time out for yourself can help you learn about the ways your mind might be causing suffering in your life, and how you can incorporate mindful actions to overcome them. 

Next week we’ll learn more about the first kleshas, avidya, or ignorance. 

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