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Prajnaparadha, Our Crimes Against Wisdom

Prajnaparadha is a Sanskrit word literally meaning “crimes against wisdom” (!). It’s a central concept in Yoga and Ayurveda, because it’s understood that doing things we know we shouldn’t is the cause of most disease and other suffering. Certainly, much of the suffering I have encountered personally and professionally has been the result of not doing what I knew I should, or doing what I knew I shouldn’t!

Choosing to do something that we know deep down is not good for us – by ignoring or overriding our intuition or simple common sense – inevitably leads to trouble down the line.  Sometimes it’s only little things, like feeling uncomfortable after eating a big meal, or tired after going to bed really late, they (alas!) all add up to future consequences which manifest in a variety of ways.

Apart from the immediate consequences of going against our better judgement, one of the ways prajnaparadha challenges us is in a gradual erosion of health, willpower and self-esteem. At first, these things might not seem to be connected, but whenever we make choices that don’t support our well being or success, we incubate a personal sense of disappointment, annoyance or even worthlessness. This can lead to a downward spiral of more bad choices and more bad feelings over time.

Here is are some examples of prajnaparadha in daily life:

  • Eating when we have already had enough, or eating when we aren’t hungry
  • Not going to the toilet when the body needs to eliminate
  • Not burping or – yes! – passing gas when necessary
  • Suppressing the need to yawn
  • Not going to bed when we’re tired (this one starts young, as anyone with kids will attest)
  • Indulging in violent entertainment or activities that disturb inner peace
  • Watching too much TV or any other distraction/avoidance technique
  • Behaving or speaking dishonestly
  • The usual culprits: poor nutrition, smoking, drinking alcohol, consuming harmful drugs

The list goes on and on… each of us does some things some of the time that we know deep down we shouldn’t do, and there are other things we might keep doing because we don’t know it’s not good for us – I think of sugar-free sodas here, cleverly marketed as a better alternative to sugary drinks, but in reality they are possibly worse for health.

We can understand prajnaparadha best through the concept of triguna, the three energetic qualities (gunas) underlying all of this worldly realm, which itself is known as prakriti.

In Ayurveda, prakriti is also your fundamental constitution, which is constantly being re-balanced due to the inevitable influence and fluctuations of the gunas, leading to doshic imbalances in the body-mind. It is especially related to our psychological nature, but as our thoughts strongly influence our physical condition, it also affects bodily health. To (over-) simplify, one can think of prakriti as the climate, and the gunas as the influence of the weather.

Rajas is the energy of action, dispersion, and passion – in the extreme it can be expressed as anger, irritability and hyperactivity. Tamas is the energy of stability and heaviness, but in the extreme can be dullness, listlessness, darkness (meaning the full range from a lack of light to psychological depression and evil) and destruction. Sattva is a state of harmony and equanimity; sattvic energy is calm and constructive, leading us to good health and peace of mind.

For example, I have a penchant for dark chocolate, which I know doesn’t make me feel good beyond the initial rush of satisfying my craving and the first taste of it in my mouth. So when I ask myself why I want to eat this thing that sometimes makes my head throb and always disturbs my energy, I notice that I’m already agitated (rajasic) when I want the chocolate, and eating the chocolate leads to even more agitation, feeding into a vicious cycle that eventually spirals down into tamas, a.k.a. a sugar crash, in this case!

Equally, the times I “forget” to go to the toilet, all the while sensing that I really must, I’m in a rajasic state of urgent activity and striving. This leads to further agitation and takes me even further out of balance – leading to a state of tamas, which can ultimately manifest as ill health – until I become aware of the pattern and stop the cycle.

The ultimate aim of all Yogic or Ayurvedic teachings and practices is to cultivate sattva – inner peace and equanimity. This can only be attained in the present moment awareness we bring to what we do, think and feel.

It can help to take stock of some of the habits and behaviours that ultimately detract from a good and happy life, in a compassionate and sympathetic (sattvic) way – the way we might listen to a good friend. The recognition that we’re acting against our best interests is part of the cultivation of sattva, and each subsequent step towards that inner calm – which doesn’t exclude being active! – is a step away from prajnaparadha.

Wishing you much love, light and wisdom!

Susan