Was Patanjali a real person or a half-human, half-snake god? Was the Yoga Sutra a “classical” text? Where have the translations come from?
These and many other questions are explored in The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography by David Gordon White professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of several books, including The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions In Medieval India (read my post on it), Kiss of the Yogini, Yoga in Practice, and Sinister Yogis (read my post on it).
Modern Yoga is an amalgam of Occult, New Age, and Christian-Hindu Metaphysics packaged for consumers who may seldom, if ever, examine critically the actual origins of the philosophy and practices of Yoga. (Read my critical posts of Yoga). The Yoga Sutra, like most ancient sacred texts, has little in common with the original version.
Below is my review and commentary on:
The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books)
by David Gordon White, Princeton University Press, 2014. Print.
“Big Yoga–the corporate yoga subculture–has elevated the Yoga Sutra to a status it never knew, even during its seventh- to twelfth-century heyday” writes White in his Preface.
Patanjali (first century BCE or fourth century CE) is the name of the mysterious author-compiler of the Yoga Sutra, acclaimed in modern yoga circles. In twelfth century Tamil traditions, Patancali (spelled with a “c”) is the name of a half-man half-snake incarnation of the great serpent-god, Ananta. Later scholars, identified this mythic Tamil Patancali with the Sanskrit Patanjali of the Yoga Sutra. Was the author of the Sutra a human, Patanjali?
What actually is the Yoga Sutra?
Literally, they are 196 obscure stanzas written in Sanskrit. What we read are not the original.
What we actually get in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali are interpretations of commentaries.
“When we speak of the philosophy of Patanjali we really mean (or should mean) is the understanding of Patanjali according to Vyasa [mythic ‘editor’ of the Vedas (1200 BCE) and Mahabharata (400 CE)]: It is Vyasa who determined what Patanjali’s abstruse sutras meant, and all the subsequent commentators elaborated on Vyasa…” says Rutgers University professor Edwin Bryant, a scholar of Hinduism.
The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography is a chronicle of the Yoga Sutra’s principle commentators to-date: including Vyasa, eighteenth century German romantic philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Theosophical Society founder Helena Blavatsky (read my post), first Indian Guru to come to the West Swami Vivekananda (read my post), famous twentieth century yoga teacher Krishnamacharya and others.
White weaves together a narrative of biographies about the chief commentators that crafted what we call the Yoga Sutra.
White concludes his book with Yoga Sutra 2.0, that is, his final chapter on what may be next, along with some “alternative theories” about how the Sutras may have been “hijacked” or co opted by translators or commentators to promote their agendas. He also shares a provocative theory of scholars that the Sutra was originally a Buddhist work that was reinterpreted into a Hindu text.
Critical scholars, like David Gordon White, could grind the Yoga Sutra down into analytical powder for ever, and not be able to provide definitive answers (kind of like biblical scholarship).
Yoga students may find White’s critical biography contradicts Modern Yoga teachers who claim lineage with the original Sutras of Patanjali.
The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography is for ardent students and critical researchers of yoga. Yet, this book is easy to read for the non-technical, non-academic reader with keen interest in yoga. Readers of White’s book may never see The Yoga Sutra as “sacred” or “original” again.