Nirvikalpa (Sanskrit : निर्विकल्प) is a Sanskrit adjective with the general sense of "not wavering," "admitting no doubt," "free from change or differences."[1] In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali it refers to meditation without an object.

Nirvikalpa (Sanskrit : निर्विकल्प) is a Sanskrit adjective with the general sense of "not admitting an alternative",[2] "not wavering," "admitting no doubt," "free from change or differences."[1] It is formed by applying the contra-existential prepositional prefix निः nis ("away, without, not") to the term विकल्प vikalpa ("alternative, variant thought or conception").[3]

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, nirvikalpa samadhi is a synonym for Asamprajnata Samadhi, the highest stage of samadhi.[web 1] Samadhi is of two kinds,[4][web 1] with and without support of an object of meditation:[web 2]

Nirvikalpa samādhi, on the other hand, absorption without self-consciousness, is a mergence of the mental activity (cittavṛtti) in the Self, to such a degree, or in such a way, that the distinction (vikalpa) of knower, act of knowing, and object known becomes dissolved — as waves vanish in water, and as foam vanishes into the sea.[15]

"Without seeds or Samskaras [...] All the seeds or impressions are burnt by the fire of knowledge [...] all the Samskaras and Vasanas which bring on rebirths are totally freed up. All Vrittis or mental modifications that arise from the mind-lake come under restraint. The five afflictions, viz., Avidya (ignorance), Asmita (egoism), Raga-dvesha (love and hatred) and Abhinivesha (clinging to life) are destroyed and the bonds of Karma are annihilated [...] It gives Moksha (deliverance from the wheel of births and deaths). With the advent of the knowledge of the Self, ignorance vanishes. With the disappearance of the root-cause, viz., ignorance, egoism, etc., also disappear."[web 1]

Nirvikalpaka yoga is a technical term in the philosophical system of Shaivism, in which there is a complete identification of the "I" and Shiva, in which the very concepts of name and form disappear and Shiva alone is experienced as the real Self. In that system, this experience occurs when there is complete cessation of all thought-constructs.[16]

While Patanjali was influenced by Buddhism, and incorporated Buddhist thought and terminology,[17][18][19] the term "nirvikalpa samadhi" is unusual in a Buddhist context, though some authors have equated nirvikalpa samadhi with the formless jhanas and/or nirodha samapatti.[20][21][22] Yet, according to Jianxin Li, it is asamprajnata samadhi, c.q. savikalpa samadhi and sabija samadhi, Patanjali's first stage of meditation with a (subtle) object, that may be compared to the arupa jhanas of Buddhism, and to Nirodha-Samapatti.[6] Crangle also notes that sabija-asamprajnata samadhi resembles the four formless jhanas.[8] According to Crangle, the fourth arupa jhana is the stage of transition to Patanjali's "consciousness without seed," c.q. nirvikalpa samadhi.[14] Crangle further notes that the first jhana also resembles sabija-asamprajnata samadhi.[8] According to Gombrich and Wynne the first and second jhana represent concentration, whereas the third and fourth jhana combine concentration with mindfulness.[7]

In the Buddhist canonical texts, the word "jhāna" is never explicitly used to denote the four formless jhānas; they are instead referred to as āyatana. However, they are sometimes mentioned in sequence after the first four jhānas (other texts. e.g. MN 121 treat them as a distinct set of attainments) and thus came to be treated by later exegetes as jhānas. The immaterial attainments have more to do with expanding, while the Jhanas (1–4) focus on concentration.

The relation between dhyāna and insight is a core problem in the study of early Buddhism.[23][24][25] According to tradition, the Buddha had mastered several forms of formless meditation states, without attaining liberation, or the cessation of suffering and rebirth. This was attained when he recalled his past lives, gained insight into the cycle of rebirth, and gained direct insight into the four noble truths.[26][27] Yet, according to Schmithausen, the four noble truths as "liberating insight" may be a later addition to texts such as Majjhima Nikaya 36,[28] and liberating insight and samadhi are alternately accnetuated as the highest means to salvation throughout the Buddhist traditions.[23][24][25][note 11]

The technical Yogacara term nirvikalpa-jñāna is translated by Edward Conze as "undifferentiated cognition".[31] Conze notes that, in Yogacara, only the actual experience of nirvikalpa-jñāna can prove the reports given of it in scriptures. He describes the term as used in the Yogacara context as follows:

The "undiscriminate cognition" knows first the unreality of all objects, then realizes that without them also the knowledge itself falls to the ground, and finally directly intuits the supreme reality. Great efforts are made to maintain the paradoxical nature of this gnosis. Though without concepts, judgements and discrimination, it is nevertheless not just mere thoughtlessness. It is neither a cognition nor a non-cognition; its basis is neither thought nor non-thought.... There is here no duality of subject and object. The cognition is not different from that which is cognized, but completely identical with it.[32][note 12]

A different sense in Buddhist usage occurs in the Sanskrit expression nirvikalpayati (Pali: nibbikappa) that means "makes free from uncertainty (or false discrimination)" = distinguishes, considers carefully.[note 13]