The epicurean philosophy converses with the yoga philosophy of Patañjali

Katerina Vasilopoulou-Spitha*



The concepts of pleasure and pain

  1. Pleasure

The epicurean philosophy defines pleasure as the internal delight that comes from the complete absence of physical pain (aponia) and mental disturbance (ataraxia) and forms part of the relationship between man and the world around him. This means that the innate tendency towards pleasure, far from being a superficial surrender to sensual pleasure, signifies in Epicurus man’s endeavor to master the influences of the external world. Those influences, which man experiences as psychological disturbances and pain (algos), are manifested in the form of desires, passions and emotions. Hence, pleasure in the sense of liberation from physical pain and mental upset is considered to be the highest good and the ultimate purpose (telos) of all actions aiming at a happy life. The apparent connection between pleasure and desire is not, however, indicative of Epicurus’ support of a limitless hedonism which glorifies any kind of pleasure and dictates the satisfaction of every desire. In lieu of an unrestrained cult of pleasure, Epicurus proposes the qualitative distinction of desires that is based on a process of contemplation on the nature of desire itself which reveals the cause of every choice and its avoidance and constitutes, in essence, a study of human nature and its needs.[1]

Basic criterion for determining the nature of desire as well as its distinction into natural and vain (empty), natural and necessary or natural and unnecessary is natural equilibrium.[2] This principle defines according to Epicurus the limits (perata) of the extent of desire which he places within the context of the body’s natural needs, conceived as substance that is subject to the bonds of matter (needs for survival), yet whose destination is also to evolve and to prosper (needs for bodily well-being, health). In this respect, thirst, hunger or clothing are necessary for man’s survival and therefore, natural and necessary, in contrast to wealth and luxury which are vain (empty), since they are based on the vain opinion (kenodoxia) that they can satisfy a real need and remain unsatisfied due to the absence of limitation for their acquisition.

Being one of the five afflictions (kleśa-s) that disturbs the balance of consciousness, pleasure (sukha) in Patañjali and the yoga philosophy is thought to lead to desire and emotional attachment (sūtra II.7).[3] As it appears, pleasure comprises the element of pain as result of the attachment that derives from greediness and passion which constantly grow, since one craves increasingly for more. In sūtra-s IV.10[4] and IV.11,[5] the yoga philosopher unfolds the complex of perceptions in respect to the nature of desire. In those aphorisms, he defines desire (vāsanā) as integral part of human existence from the beginning of time, when human, caught in the web of nature, became prey of the polarities of pleasure and pain, evil and good, permanent and impermanent. Actions aiming at the satisfaction of a pleasure ignite other actions which, in turn, create new desires giving, thus, rise to an infinite chain of actions and reactions that bind the soul in an unceasing circle of rebirths. It is only the activation of intelligence through the practice of yoga that is capable of putting an end to that circle and liberate man from desire, leading him thus to freedom (kaivalya).

Although both philosophers identify pleasure with satisfaction, the starting point of their philosophical thought seems to be largely different. In fact, in Epicurus pleasure is associated with the absence of pain (aponia) and mental disturbance (ataraxia), whereas in Patañjali with emotional attachment and, ultimately, pain. Accordingly, Epicurus’ definition presupposes the absence of pain, wherein, conversely, Patañjali’s its presence. With regard to mental tranquility, we are able to attest a relevance between the blissful sobriety of the epicurean mind and Patañjali’s view of peaceful mind, although pleasure in Patañjali is not synonymous to tranquility like in Epicurus. Already in the first chapter (samādhi pāda) of his work, Patañjali defines yoga as the restraint of the fluctuations of consciousness that leads to a sattvic state of profound silence and finally to unified consciousness (samādhi). Even though the maximization of the sattvic quality, perceived as wisdom, peace and happiness, against the other qualities of nature (rajas and tamas) is essential for the yogi, that kind of happiness is related to the material world, unlike the ultimate experience that comes from realizing the soul (puruṣa) and perceiving pure being.[6] Hence, the peaceful mind may be a common point of reference in both Epicurus and Patañjali, yet in Epicurus it is presented as the end, while in Patañjali as the means towards the end, namely nirbīja samādhi.

  1. Dealing with pain as a means of liberation from the bonds of ignorance

A further rising issue concerns the concept of pain and the art of defining and handling it. Epicurus describes pain as something bad, since its presence moves us away from achieving life’s target, which is the attainment of aponia and ataraxia. In Patañjali, the concept of pain is encountered in the word kleśa, which in Hindu philosophy is used to express the pain and suffering.[7] Although there is no clear distinction between physical (such as pain of hunger, thirst, disease) and mental pain (such as worries, fears) in Patañjali, like in Epicurus, it is possible to detect the twofold nature of the word kleśa in its meaning as psycho-physical pain which is responsible for a series of imbalances of physical, emotional and mental type.[8] In sūtra I.30,[9] Patañjali recognizes the existence of physical pain in the form of disease (vyādhi) as one of the obstacles in the process of achieving self-realization. However, the main part of his analysis is found in sūtra II.3,[10] where he enumerates the five afflictions (kleśas), which constitute in reality forms of mental pain. Those are: ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion and strong desire for life. The fear of death, which derives as natural effect from Patañjali’s last affliction, is proclaimed by Epicurus as one of the most important mental pains.

Even though both philosophers consider the fear of death as one of the afflictions that cause pain, the process of liberation calls each time for a different approach which entails a different account of the soul as well as of death itself.[11] Besides the distance that separates their views upon this subject, we cannot but acknowledge their interest in non-attachment to life as an expression of man’s freedom from the bonds of ignorance. For it is this misconception about the true nature of things[12] whether it is called ignorance (avidyā) or kenodoxia that is according to the two philosophers the basic source of that pain. Only the acquirement of true knowledge can really eradicate this illusion. The way, though, in which each of them defines truth, is related to the different location of the core of ignorance. For Patañjali, that core is rooted according to sūtra-s II.5 and II.24 in the wrong perception of the transient as permanent, the impure as pure, pain as pleasure, and that which is not the self as the self,[13] and it is the cause of the false identification of the seer with the seen.[14] In Epicurus, contrarily, ignorance springs from the erroneous notion about death and the gods. Notwithstanding its different extensions, main origin of their thinking remains the firm faith in human intelligence and its ability to break the bonds of illusion and, thus, realize its substance.

The body and the concept of self-sufficiency and simple life

Apart from the concepts of pleasure and pain, also the idea of the body triggers a dialog between the philosophy of Epicurus and Patañjali. At the centre of that dialog lie bodily needs, which, as the two philosophers commonly declare, should be satisfied, insofar as they ensure survival and good health. In his analysis of the term aparigraha (sūtra II.39), Pattabhi Jois suggests eating the amount of food that is necessary for the body’s survival and avoiding desires that exceed this need[15]. The concept of the body and its needs in Patañjali is not exclusively limited in the sufficient food but deals also with maintaining a healthy body through the choice of appropriate food as well as cleanliness. In sūtra II.40,[16] he clearly refers to the need for cleanliness and purification of the body and mind that starts from the outer layer of the body (skin) and reaches its inner parts (blood, organs). Iyengar states that according to Patañjali the body as the soul’s respected shrine should not be neglected[17] and stresses the importance of physical health and hygiene for developing a strong body which serves as springboard for the yogi’s spiritual elevation.[18]

The satisfaction of the needs for food and cleanliness demonstrates in Patañjali an initial categorization of desires. Those are desires which he characterizes as natural and necessary, since they guarantee survival and physical well-being. In addition, a look at sūtra II.38 sheds light to another distinction of desires with regard to body and its needs. In particular, the term “brahmacarya” that has the meaning of sexual restraint implies that sexual pleasure is recognized as natural but non-necessary according to Epicurus’ example, for it responds to a natural need that defines the body itself,[19] yet it cannot ensure health and maintenance in life. The absolute abstinence from that kind of activity, which as it has been claimed Patañjali connotes with the term “brahmacarya”,[20] seems to be what Epicurus suggests when he describes that kind of desire as merely natural.[21] Still, Patañjali doesn’t stop at a qualitative categorization of desires. According to Pattabhi Jois’ explanation of the word aparigraha, he takes a step further by defining the limits of those desires which should not exceed the natural needs.

Behind his counsel to receive only the amount of food that is necessary we can detect the activation of a process of contemplation on the real needs as well as an idea about self-sufficiency. This is a process that Iyengar calls discriminative thinking and is characteristic of cultivated intelligence. Similarly, Epicurus teaches self-sufficiency as a spiritual exercise of freedom – and not as a renunciation of the self itself – and moreover, as liberation from empty desires and the fear of their non-satisfaction. Freedom as the ultimate fruit of self-sufficiency, which the epicurean philosopher attains consciously through a process of contemplation on the nature of desires, constitutes the epitome of the epicurean teaching which contends that “genuine pleasure” is not “the pleasure of profligates” but rather the simple satisfaction of a mind and body at peace.[22]

Liberation from excessive desires[23] achieved through the contemplative exercise of distinguishing desires, in favor of which Patañjali appears to speak with the term aparigraha, is the cornerstone of the simple life that Epicurus refers to when he writes to Aelianus “he who is not satisfied with less, is not satisfied with anything” (Various History 4.13). Behind the reading of aparigraha as non-greediness one could find Patañjali’s concept of simple life that hasn’t the sense of a strict asceticism but it is founded on Epicurus’ principles of autonomy and moderation.

Philosophy as therapy and art of moral (kalos) living

The writings of the two philosophers provide evidence of their firm intention to define an initiation guide into the art of moral living (kalos zein) that is grounded on the conviction that human life is not a total of moments or episodes but the implementation of a strategy of life. In essence, it is a sum of views of ethical character that aim at the moral cultivation of the individual in two levels: social (person in relation to society) and individual (person in relation to himself).

Those views are summarized in Epicurus in the virtue of prudence and the idea of justice, while in Patañjali in the yama-s and niyama-s. In the context of the epicurean moral hedonism, in particular, prudence as the “sober thinking searching out the causes of every choice and avoidance and driving out the opinions”[24] that create disturbance is considered to be the highest among the other virtues, being more important even from philosophy itself.[25] For it teaches, that one cannot live pleasantly, if not virtuously, honorably and justly. This brightness of wisdom, which the epicurean philosopher obtains through the process of contemplation, is the key component of a happy life.

Yet, the concept of pleasure in Epicurus transcends the narrow limits of man’s personal happiness, since it is defined by man’s relationship with the people around him. This aspect involves an idea about justice which is based on the mutual benefit that results from the principle of non-doing harm to or non-being harmed by somebody, and takes the form of social contract.[26] Epicurus calls this justice natural, since it satisfies the natural desire for safety. Regardless of whether it has or not the formal validity of law,[27] this principle is significant to the extent that it imposes the creation of a field of action, in which the individual defines his own safety and well-being in accordance with and in respect to the limits of the safety and well-being of the other.

The kind of ethics that lies at the core of Epicurus’ ideas of honorable and justice life is also encountered in Patañjali. Similarly, in the philosophy of yoga the course towards the individual’s self-realization is not perceived separately but in relation to the society in which he lives. Basic pillars in this process of self-realization and the yogi’s elevation in the highest levels of samādhi are the omnipotent and universal rules[28] of the yama-s and niyama-s. These rules of individual and social conduct, towards which the practitioner owes faith and dedication throughout his life, don’t apply independently but in mutual interdependence. Hence, the observance, for example, of non-violence or non-stealing cannot be understood without a feeling of contentment or self-study and the opposite. The structure and function of the value system of the yama-s and niyama-s indicates that the individual and social ethics in Patañjali go hand in hand, forming, thus, an indivisible unit.[29]

In addition to its moral foundation, the philosophy of Epicurus and of Patañjali’s yoga has been claimed to have also the character of a therapy,[30] insofar as it contributes to the extinction of mental diseases that derive from the afflictions (kleśas) according to Patañjali or the fear of death according to Epicurus. Patañjali, of course, doesn’t reach the point of drawing a parallel between philosophy and medicine as well as between the philosopher and the doctor, like Epicurus.[31] Much less to proceed to the design of specific therapeutic strategies based on the medical model, like the ancient Greek philosopher.[32] Nevertheless, in both cases the notion of therapy as a process of reestablishing mental balance and experiencing the true grandeur of the soul has a central position and a decisive role in the realization of their philosophical vision.



[1] Alga, K., Barnes, J., Mansfeld, J., Schofield, M., The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy, Cambridge: University Press, 1999, p. 651-657

[2] Alga, K., Barnes, J., Mansfeld, J., Schofield, M., ibid, p. 659

[3] See Iyengar, B.K.S., Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, Thorsons, 1996, p.115

[4] See Iyengar, B.K.S., Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, Thorsons, 1996, p. 257

[5] See Iyengar, B.K.S., Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, Thorsons, 1996, p.258

[6] 2007, «Inside the Yoga Tradition»,  Integral Yoga Magazine, p.20

[7] Nakamura, H., A History of Early Vedanta Philosophy, Motilal Banarsidass, 1989, p.772

[8] Iyengar, B.K.S., Core of the Yoga Sūtras, HarperThorsons, 2012, p.79

[9] See Iyengar, B.K.S., Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, Thorsons, 1996, p. 83

[10] See Iyengar, B.K.S., Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, Thorsons, 1996, p. 111

[11] See Κexroglou, C., 2010, «The Epicurean treatment of the fear of death and its transfer to today», Philosophein, p. 66-72

[12] Hariharananda, S. A., Yoga Philosophy of Patañjali, SUNY Press, 1984, p. 116

[13] Iyengar, B.K.S., Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, Thorsons, 1996, p. 114

[14] Iyengar, B.K.S., Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, Thorsons, 1996, p. 134

[15] See Jois, Sri.K.P., Yoga Mala, North Point Press, 2010, σ. 93. See also Jois, S., The Sacred Tradition of Yoga, Shambhala Publications, 2015, Chapter 7

[16] See Iyengar, B.K.S., Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, Thorsons, 1996, p. 153

[17] See Iyengar, B.K.S., Yaugika Manas, Yog, 2010, p. 93

[18] See Iyengar, B.K.S., Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, Thorsons, 1996, p. 154

[19] In contrast to vain (empty) desires, by which there is no limit for their satisfaction.

[20] Alga, K., Barnes, J., Mansfeld, J., Schofield, M., op cit, p. 657

[21] Iyengar, B.K.S., Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, Thorsons, 1996, p. 151-152

[22] Rosenbaum, S., 1990, “Epicurus on pleasure and the complete life”, Monist, 73(1), 21, Retrieved October 4, 2007, from Academic Search Premier database

[23] See Long, A. A., From Epicurus to Epictetus, Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 202

[24] Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, translation Leonidas Α. Alexandridis, Friends of Epicurean Philosophy “Athens Garden”, October 2013, p.5

[25] See Mitra, A., 2015, “Epicurean Ethics: A Relook”, American International Journal of Contemporary Research, Vol. 5, No. 1, p. 99

[26] See Thrasher, J.J., 2012, “Reconciling Justice and Pleasure in Epicurean Contractarianism”, Ethic Theory Moral Prac, Springer

[27] See Chroust, A.H., 1971, “The Philosophy of Law of Epicurus and the Epicureans”, American Journal of Jurisprudence, Vol. 16: Iss. 1, Article 3. Available at:

[28] See sūtra ΙΙ.31, Iyengar, B.K.S., Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, Thorsons, 1996, p. 143

[29] See also Krishnananda, S., Yoga as a Universal Science, The Divine Life Society, p. 176-190

[30] See Carlisle, C., Ganeri, J., Philosophy as Therapeia, Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 219

[31] See Warren, J., The Cambridge Companion to EPICUREANISM, Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 249-265

[32] See Warren, J., ibid, p. 249

 φωτογραφία* Katerina Vasilopoulou Spitha studied History and Archaeology in the University of Athens. After her studies, she developed her interest in art and philosophy through a series of seminars that she attended in Greece and abroad. She now teaches ashtanga yoga in Zakynthos, Greece, while continuing her practice with Kristina Karitinou, feeling truly blessed and honoured to be under her guidance. She practices zen meditation and is interested in its connection with the practice of ashtanga yoga. Deepening her knowledge in ancient Greek and Indian philosophy constitutes central part of her spiritual search.

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