The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Critical Biography

buddha serpentWas 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.

yoga sutra of patanjali white-minBelow 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.

Vyasa-min
Vyasa

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.

5 comments

  1. SkepticMeditations

    @My Other Feet: I just noticed I’ve been calling you “Foot” instead of Feet. Interesting handle!

    That’s a great quote your shared from Taleb, AntiFragile book: “Religions exist not to show humans the way to God, but to show humans that they are not God”. Yes, the “divine” gurus and saints have to have something to sell us that we believe we are “missing”. Selling us a god-shaped hole in our hearts or in our “non-existent” souls. Never mind a non-existent god, even the notion of a soul and afterlife is dubious. Read my post Souls, Selves, and Afterlife Contradictions and Life After Death: A History.

    I very much appreciate old books like Mahabharata, Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer. The Bible not so much. Literature is fascinating.

    thanks

  2. My Other Feet

    @S.M. — I agree with your comparison and point about ancient texts being touted as scientifically verified panaceas. It’s a misuse of a text that, as you said about the Yoga Sutra, is opaque: the text can be interpreted a variety of ways.

    I agree that the Sutra isn’t linguistically clear. There’s certainly an element of myth, given that was a way to transfer knowledge in an oral tradition, prior to mass literacy and a publishing system. N.N. Taleb has an interesting aphorism in his book Antifragile about religion; it goes something like, “Religions exist not to show humans the way to God, but to show humans that they are not God”. I find the history of old books fascinating, so I suppose we diverge on that point. However, I think one implication of your comment is that one ought not to confuse an old book with Truth, simply because it’s old and hard to read — I agree with that.

  3. SkepticMeditations

    @My Other Foot: Regarding your arguments in 1, 2, 3 below.

    The Holy Bible was originally written 2,000-3,500 years ago. I don’t see any practical reason anyone should accept the claims of truth from a Bible or Yoga Sutra. Unless, of course, they have feelings or faith that they should: that’s a different discussion. The Bible and Sutras are more often than not promoted by gurus and devotees as divine revelation that is being confirmed by modern science about how the world and people actually functions. Hogwash.

    Your point #4: The interpretations of the Sutra are potentially endless. I don’t try to parse particular stanzas or Sutras. White points out in his book that the original Sutra in Sanskrit is opaque. I’m no longer emotionally or intellectually invested in the the claims being made in the Sutra so I have a better chance to see them for what I think they are: ancient myths wrapped in enigmas masquerading as divine riddles. If you want to make the Sutra important personally as a meaningful text that’s fine with me. Though I see the Sutra as akin to bad poetry or murky myth.

    Thanks for your comments.

    “@S.M.: I can understand your perspective, and if we’re talking about their argument in terms of two-value logic, where a proposition must be either true or false, I think you’re correct. However, I think there are a few additional aspects to this text that need to be included in the analysis:
    – First, the Yoga Sutras, as well as Buddhist, Jaina, and other traditions texts, were composed in a competitive atmosphere: similar to 19th century snake oil peddlers or contemporary political debates, it behooved each group to advertise their appealing features (e.g. siddhis). This doesn’t excuse the inclusion of “marketing claims” in a text that ought to teach a repeatable practice, but it at least provides a possible explanation for their inclusion.
    – Second, I think many the 20th century yogis who linked Yoga with science, did so without understanding what ‘science’ entailed. They understood Yoga has a well-defined method of instruction and practice, and incorrectly assumed a commonality with scientific practice without adjusting the methods of verification and falsification for yogic knowledge: that error of linking ancient texts with scientific method lies with the yogis and gurus who popularized the text, rather than the text. There is an aspect of “buyer beware” when following a teacher, which if I understand your position correctly, is a key tenet of your ideas here.
    – Third, I think a three-value system of logic ought to be applied when reading texts that were composed before the development of the scientific method (i.e. before circa 1500 A.D.). Rather than requiring all propositions of an ancient text to be true or false, a third value of “unknown” allows an interpretation of ancient texts. Unknown propositions are neither false nor true, allowing further analysis to occur before determining whether such propositions fall into the true or false buckets. If a claim cannot be determined as true or false (e.g. mystical claims, or claims from unverifiable subjective experience), then those claims cannot be scientifically tested because they have no falsifying conditions.
    – Fourth, your point about soteriology is interesting. One of the puzzling things about the Yogasutra is the variety of definitions of yoga and liberation that Patanjali provides: sutra 1.2 contains little, if any, mystical claims or higher-self language, but there are other sutras in the text that do talk about mysticism: e.g. how do you understand “ishvara” in 1.23-27? It can be translated as master, king, queen, or god, and it’s possible to render the additional sutras on ishvara in varying degrees of mysticism, from following an accomplished teacher to worshipping a god.

    I like White’s writing. I have his edited book on Tantra, but I out of the loop on many of his newer books, although they look interesting. Thanks for the recommendation” (My Other Foot).

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