Entangled Ontologies

By Centre of Yoga Studies|January 6, 2021|Uncategorized|0 comments

In September 2020, the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies ran a seminar series titled ‘Yoga and Philosophy’. After the seminars, we invited participants to write posts reflecting on each one.

The presentation portion of the seminar series is available on our YouTube channel.

Title slide from Karen's seminar

Seminar: Entangled Ontologies in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra: Sāṃkhya, Sarvāstivāda and Sautrāntika’ led by Karen O’Brien-Kop.

This post written by: Rocco Cestola.

On September 21, 2020, the Yoga and Philosophy Seminar Series for the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies was led by Dr Karen O’Brien-Kop (University of Roehampton). In this seminar, she has explored ontology in relation to theories and practices of mind and meditation. Her discussion raises questions of how ontology shapes notions of self and nature and, in turn, the relation between the self and reality. Specifically, Karen deals with two passages dealing with karma retribution mechanisms in relation to rebirth, and at the same time but more widely, with the technical debate and language on ontology and causality as connected to karma. To consider these questions, she read selected passages from Patañjali’s Pātañjalayogaśāstra and Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośabhāṣya.

To compare these ontologies and their interaction, as Dr O’Brien-Kop suggests, it is important to understand the role of debate and the formal aspects behind the transmission of ideas. During the first centuries of the common era, debates were an inherent part of the intellectual life in both the oral and written traditions witnessing a vivid argumentative pluralism. In this sense, the ongoing debates put the intellectuals in the condition to critically rethink their philosophical positions to face opponents’ perspectives.

The basic quest of this seminar deals with the different ontologies underlying both the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma and the Pātañjalayogaśāstra. The Sarvāstivāda is grounded on the Buddhist theory of momentariness and transitoriness in relation to time and how this is reconciled with theories of cause and effect, and with causality. The central problem with which Sarvāstivāda is grappling is how to explain causal continuity in the mental processes if there is only one momentary awareness (dharma) attending any one point in time. How do cause and effect in relation to the theory of karma intersect with the theory of ‘tri-temporality’ (Dhammajoti), namely past, present and future all existing simultaneously? Patañjali does not deal with this ontological problem since he grounds his view on Sāṅkhya ontology where the theory of a permanent substratum to reality is resorted to. Nonetheless, the Pātañjalayogaśāstra incorporates some of the terms and ideas recurring in the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya.

In her former article published in 2017 (see bibliography below) where the focus is on Patañjali’s response to the Sautrāntika discourse of the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya (in a comparison of passages from Pātañjalayogaśāstra II.4 and Abhidharmakośabhāṣya V.1), she showed and argued that the soteric path structures of the Pātañjalayogśāstra and the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya overlap in the discourse that surrounds the kleśas and how to be rid of them. Dr O’Brien-Kop now draws our attention to other two textual passages taken from Pātañjalayogaśāstra II.13 and Abhidharmakośabhāṣya IV.94. What is here relevant is not only the similarity in the technical vocabulary, but also the way the arguments are presented and unfolded. Striking here is an ontological argument and its metaphoric underpinning employed to discuss ethical causality or karmic retribution in relation to rebirth. Despite the above mentioned similarities of form and structure, the doctrinal content and the conclusions reached are different.

Based on the assumption that multiple karmas are congealed into a single karmic entity (karmāśaya) to produce a single birth, Patañjali’s argument leads to the twofold conclusion that one karma produces one birth and multiple karmas congealed lead to one birth. On the other hand, Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośabhāṣya concludes that one karma leads to one birth and multiple karmas lead to one birth. Interestingly, both texts use different metaphors to conceptually formulate and illustrate their conclusions. Patañjali’s metaphor is the one of a fisherman’s net explaining how diverse accumulated latent impressions (vāsanās) are knotted together in one single mind entity capturing information for the next rebirth. In contrast, Vasubandhu’s metaphor is that of a painting where a form is sketched out but also where the painter fills it with details determining new specific quality forms in the next life. As Dr O’Brien-Kop suggests, both texts are probably referring, and the Pātañjalayogaśāstra more specifically responding, to a common argument already addressed in the Vaibhāṣikā text titled Abhidharmavibhāṣā (c. 1st – 2nd century CE).


Karen O’Brien-Kop is a Lecturer in Asian Religions and Ethics at Roehampton University. She researches classical South Asian Sanskrit texts and culture on meditation and yoga, in particular exploring the interconnections of Hinduism and Buddhism. More broadly, her research interests are Indian religion and philosophy, philosophy of mind, theory and method in the study of religion, global philosophies, and literary criticism and theory. She previously worked as a Senior Teaching Fellow at SOAS University of London, where she also completed her doctoral research.

Rocco CestolaRocco Cestola is an IIAS fellow with a fellowship from the J. Gonda Foundation of the (Dutch) Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). His research treats a topic that may be termed Pātañjalayogadarśana Philosophy of Language




  • “Dharmamegha in Yoga and Yogācāra: The Revision of a Superlative Metaphor”, O’Brien-Kop, K., 18 Aug 2020, In: Journal of Indian Philosophy. 48, 4, p. 605-635.
  • “Classical Discourses of Liberation: Shared Botanical Metaphors in Sarvāstivāda Buddhism and the Yoga of Patañjali”, O’Brien-Kop, K., 6 Sep 2017, In: Religions of South Asia. p. 123-157.

Seminar readings

  • Dhammajoti, Kuala Lumpur. 2007. ​Abhidharma Doctrines and Controversy on Perception.3rd rev. ed. Hong Kong: Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong [Chapter 2 and Chapter 3]
  • Perrett, Roy W. 2016. ​An Introduction to Indian Philosophy.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press [Chapter 6: Self]
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