An aristotelian account of samādhi

Katerina Vassilopoulou-Spitha*


Samādhi and the notion of final end in Patañjali

In the first of the four chapters of his sutras, Patañjali defines yoga as the art of restraining the fluctuations of consciousness (cittavrittι nirodha) (sutra I.2) that aims to lead to the knowledge of the true Self, the soul (purusha-vidya)[1]. The cessation (nirodha) of mental modifications presupposes according to Patañjali an eightfold path (astanga) of cultivation and transformation of consciousness, which results in the total absorption in the self and thus in self-realization. This final stage of samādhi, called nirbija samādhi, constitutes the highest goal of yoga, since it signifies the summit of the yogi’s meditative practice, in which he is able to perceive the soul and experience the grandeur of pure being. Clearly, the context of the word samādhi reflects a teleological notion, according to which the yogi is destined to fulfill the innate purpose of his existence which is to attain self-knowledge, the absolute knowledge of the Self, the soul.

Basic instrument for gaining the knowledge of the soul (purusha), is the yogi’s own physical body. In the same way as nature, according to sutra II.21, exists only to serve the soul, also the body, whose structure and function is linked to nature and its qualities, exists to be in the service of the soul. A closer examination of this notion brings to light two major underlying aspects that concern the relationship between purpose and matter. In particular, this relationship defines that:

a) purpose is the cause of matter rather than matter the cause of purpose, namely the body, conceived as a form of organized matter, exists not for its own sake but for the sake of serving as vehicle of the soul. Consequently,

b) self-realization, as the final end of yoga,  is a process that doesn’t exclude but instead entails and presupposes matter.

The concept of entelechy and end (telos) in Aristotle

The concept of final end and realization is also encountered in Aristotle’s theory on form and matter, which he extensively discusses in his works Physics and Metaphysics, and more specific in his perception of entelechy.

In Physics, in particular, Aristotle argues that all real or actual things are composed of form and matter, yet form is distinct from matter in the sense that form is the determinate structure (morphe) of a thing, while matter is the stuff (hyle) out of which it is made. Hence, matter is a completely indefinite principle that lies in a chaotic, shapeless state and becomes definite, namely something, a thing, only when form, the defining principle, by acting upon it, gives it a specific structure and shape. In other words, matter exists only when it takes a particular form. What makes a piece of wood a furniture? Form does. And what would be a piece of marble, if not a statue, or column? Nothing but a potency, a potential thing.

This concept of potency analyses Aristotle in the work Metaphysics where he defines matter as the potentiality of a thing to become an actual thing and, by doing so, to develop from a state of potentiality towards a state of actuality.  He, thus, relates form to “dunamis” (δύναμις), potency, while form to “energeia” (ἐνέργεια), actuality, and contends that matter tends by nature to take a particular form out of need to reach a more complete, “shape-full” state. It is this transformative process, through which matter takes a concrete form, that Aristotle calls ἐντελέχεια ‎(entelékheia, “entelechy”). This term, which he coined from τέλος (télos, “end”) and the verb ἔχω ‎(ékhō, “to have”), is used to describe the complete realization of a thing that results from the actiοn of an internal end (telos), in virtue of which it attains its fullest completion. Correspondingly, the entelechy (the purpose) of the body is the soul, which realizes, “shapes” its ability (being subject to the bonds of matter) to exist by means of accomplishing this purpose (end). This is a view that Aristotle postulates in his treatise On the Soul (De Anima), where the soul is for the body the form (eidos)[2] as well as the purpose (telos) and the source of its existence.

Samādhi as a means of reaching the “actual” (ἐντελεχείᾳ) state of being: an aristotelian approach of the purpose of yoga

The perception of realization as the final end of matter, which a priori entails and by nature aims at, gives rise to a discussion centred around the yoga philosophy of Patañjali and the aristotelian philosophy.

1) The notion of realization as completion

As it seems, common objective of the two philosophies is the definition of the final cause (οὗ ἕνεκα) of being as the internal force that initiates and directs action, or according to the aristotelian terminology motion (κινούν)[3], towards the fulfillment of that particular purpose and which, thus, explains the very point of existence itself. In that context, the yoga aspirant lies, according to the aristotelian example, in a state of “potential being”, of a “potential” substance that urged by its inner need to realize itself reaches its full completion (entelechy) through samādhi. In the sense of the highest level of completeness of being, realization has the meaning of completion, which, however, doesn’t occur deterministically but calls for, as already mentioned above, a specific energy, action. Such an action is, in Aristotle’s case, the transition from the state of “potential” being into the state of “actual” being, whereas, in Patañjali’s yoga, the dissolution of ignorance and the revelation of the true essence of existence.

 Yet, it should be noted that in the yoga philosophy completion, as defined above, is not synonymous to samādhi, which is rather the vehicle that leads to it, but to self-realization. Engulfing the entire plexus of perceptions about the concept of being in Patañjali, the term self-realization raises a major issue that constitutes the main diverging point of the two philosophical thoughts. Inevitably, this issue is associated with the notion of the soul and its role in the process of reaching the state of being.

2) The concept of being: A different account and anatomy of being

“ἀναγκαῖον ἄρα τὴν ψυχὴν οὐσίαν εἶναι ὡς εἶδος σώματος φυσικοῦ δυνάμει ζωὴν ἔχοντος. ἡ δ’ οὐσία ἐντελέχεια· τοιούτου ἄρα σώματος ἐντελέχεια.” (Aristotle, On the Soul II, 412a 19-20)

“Hence the soul must be a substance in the sense of the form of a natural body having life potentially within it. But substance is actuality, and thus soul is the actuality of a body as above characterized.”[4]

In this passage of De Anima, Aristotle characterizes the soul as the cause and principle of the living beings. In doing so, he identifies the soul with the physical organic life, perceived as a sum of abilities and functions. What we are able to discern behind this statement, is the scope of the biologist and natural scientist Aristotle, who, in his endeavor to explain the phenomenon of life, describes existence in terms of a cause and effect relationship, expressed in the doctrine “I have a soul, therefore, I exist”. Accordingly, the aristotelian concept of entelechy is not correlated to some metaphysical notion of the soul, as we would conversely find in the platonic philosophy. Thus, clearly detached from the dualistic view of Plato, Aristotle regards that body and soul constitute an organic whole, insofar as neither the soul exists without a body[5] nor the body without a soul.  At the opposite end of this spectrum of ideas stands the concept of self-realization in Patañjali. According to this notion, existence is not defined in terms of causality but intentionality, since the soul is not related to the phenomenon of life, like in Aristotle, but it is considered to be a distinct entity, liberated from decline and death and, thus, eternal and non-perishable. Obviously, there is a clear differentiation from the aristotelian doctrine “I have a soul, therefore, I exist”, which in Patañjali is construed as “I exist with the aim of reaching the knowledge of the soul”, acquiring, in that sense, a purely metaphysical dimension.

The different dynamics that the two philosophical systems develop concerning this matter should be also ascribed to the different way they view the anatomy of existence itself. In respect to human beings, in particular, Aristotle argues that the soul, as the general vital principle of the body, performs specific operations, such as that of nutrition and reproduction, of motion and sensation as well as of intellect and logic. The aristotelian view that the body needs the soul in order to live in the same manner as the soul needs the body to carry out its functions is entirely absent in Patañjali, where body and soul are not indivisibly compounded, like in Aristotle, but the soul, although resides in the body, exists separately and independently from it.

Drawing on Aristotle’s theology: samādhi as a “cosmogenetic” event and as another kind of “self-contemplation”

The differentiated way, in which the two theories define the phenomenon of realization, does not, however, limit the importance of this account. Apart from a deeper comprehension of the teleological nature of samādhi, the aristotelian philosophy offers a field of investigation of another of its aspect. This concerns its role as the point, where existence is being seen as part of the organizing structure and function of the universe, origin and defining principle of which is God.

Central to Aristotle’s theology is the idea of God as the “first unmoved mover”, he who moves without being moved. For although he is the moving force of all things, he himself, as the necessary, absolute and immaterial Being, is motionless and, therefore, eternal and unchangeable. Correspondingly, Patañjali in his yoga sutras (I.24-I.25) describes God as a special soul (vishesha purusha), omniscient, dominant, perpetually free from the bonds of matter and the conventions of place, space or time. Despite its different origin, the concept of God as the first principle and substance in Aristotle and as an eternally free soul in Patañjali do not imply man’s isolation from God but rather their connection. In Patañjali, in specific, inspired by the freedom of God (ishvara) man (jivatman) perceives his eternally free soul (purusha) which constitutes the very core of the human existence wherein in Aristotle the divine thinking (nous) is considered to be part of human thought. This idea is founded on Aristotle’s theory on the two modes of thinking, passive and productive, propounded in De Anima III, according to which productive thinking, being immortal and immutable, is identical to divine nous that resides in the soul of every man acting, thus, as a bridge that connects God with man and, consequently, the perishable with the unchangeable, eternal world.[6] Interestingly, we are able to ascertain that in both cases the divine element is innate in human existence whether in the form of nous (productive thinking) or of substance (soul). Taking a step further, Patañjali in sutra II.45 invites the yogi to mentally merge into the divine through its surrender to God (ishvara pranidhana).[7] In representing the culmination of samādhi, this moment assumes a cosmogenetic quality, since it signifies the yogi’s spiritual connection with God and his own nature as spirit (purusha) and structural element of the universe.

In that context, the attainment of samādhi denotes the yogi’s innate ability to perceive the self as Self and to reach self-completion, abandoning, as a result, his human, perishable nature. In the stage of samādhi, in which the aspirant loses his self-awareness as a result of the unification of the subject with the object of meditation (sutra III.3), prevailing is solely the presence of the Self, the soul. To such an ability of self-contemplation, derivative of the identification of the substance with its object.[8] refers Aristotle in his work Metaphysics (Book Λ) with the term “noesis noeseos” (self-thinking nous), when he describes God as nous that exists to think uninterruptedly and exclusively of itself. There, he also supports the argument that the human thinking can actually reach the state of the first (divine) nous, but only in some occasions, since it differs as substance from it. In the light of the present account, we could regard samādhi as another kind of self-contemplation, a different form of self-thinking exercised by man – and not by God according to Aristotle’s theory – which perceives not by means of intellectual function but of evidential experience. And is it not truly the stage, in which the soul can experience completely and only the soul?

Introductory image


[1]In sutra I.3 Patanjali states that after the mental modifications have been restrained, the soul resides in its true nature. See Kesarcodi-Watson, I. (1982). Samādhi in Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras. Philosophy East and West, 32, 77-90, p. 78

[2]The characterization of the soul as eidos has not the meaning of species or shape but concerns the soul’s role as function and actualization of the physical body. See Ackrill, J. L. (1972-1973). Aristotle’s Definitions of “Psuche”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 73, 119-133, p.122

[3]According to Aristotle, every being is subject to motion, namely change. “In Physics Aristotle speaks about the eternity of motion and from this concept infers also the eternity of time. Motion and time go together, are interrelated”. See Danezis, Μ. Aristotle. The father of West Science


[5]Yet, although the soul resides in the body, it is not material. See Durant, W. (2014). The adventure of philosophy: The life and thought of big philosophers, Μetaixmio

[6] See Papadis Ι. D., (1991). The concept of God in Aristotle as “noesis noeseos”, Greek Philosophical Review, 8, 130-142, p.131

[7]See Hariharānanda, Ā. S. (1983). Yoga Philosophy of Patañjali: Containing his yoga aphorisms with Vyasa’s commentary in Sanskrit and a translation with annotations including many suggestions for the practice of yoga, SUNY Press, p.227

[8]According to Elders the expression “noesis noeseos” means that there is no distinction between the subject that thinks and the object of thinking in the same way as there is no distinction between the subject that thinks and the mind as well as between the subject that thinks and the thinking.  See Κatzimpouri Ε. (2011). The Βook Λ of Aristotle’s Metaphysics: Concerning the substance of the first unmoved mover (Graduate Thesis), Patras University, p.47


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* 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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