Category: Yoga

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.


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.

The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions In Medieval India

alchemical bodyThis remarkable book illuminates the “body of light” of yogis, tantrikas, and alchemists. The author traveled throughout India and Nepal, interviewed living yogis and alchemists, and combed the yogic, tantric, and ayurvedic scriptures–Hindu, Nath, Taoist and Buddhist traditions–to reveal their alchemical secrets.

The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions In Medieval India
by David Gordon White
University of Chicago Press, 1996. Paperback

White warns readers upfront, in the fifth paragraph of his 600 page book, to expect “dizzying multitudinous levels of self-interpretation” from the yogi, tantrika, and alchemist traditions. The notions of the subtle “alchemical” body are complex; they are a morass of myths, beliefs, and rituals developed during three thousand years. Reader beware: “dizziness” is a side-effect of the interpretations of the yogis and siddhis themselves.

David Gordon White sees the Yogic-Siddhic alchemist as essentially concerned with the creation and intensification of a “body of light” while remaining yet in the phenomenal world. The beliefs and rituals of the yogin, tantrika, and siddha are meant to transform the gross material body into an immortal, divine portal: a sacrificial “oblation” that lifts the human being heavenward (samadhi) through control of breath, diet, and sex. The Alchemical Body is a study of the language of mystic experience and expression–the multitudinous symbols, rituals, and doctrines of the medieval siddhis, yogis, and alchemists.

“The worlds of the Siddhas and Vidyadharas were the closest homologue India has known to popular western notions of heaven as a place of sensual gratification and freedom from the human condition. Those capable of acceding to these atmospheric levels remained there, liberated from the fruits of their acts (karma) and forever exempted from the lower worlds of rebirth (samsara) but not divested of their individuality as is the case with the impersonal workings of release into the Absolute (moksha). p3 

The most important innovation of these medieval Siddha traditions (the Nath and Rasa Siddhas in particular) was the concrete and coherent method they proposed for the attainment of the Siddha world and Siddha status. This is what had been lacking in the earlier Siddha cults: the belief system was there, but the notions of how to reach that blessed abode were vague at best. p3

This was hatha yoga, the “method of violent exertion”, whose system of the six cakras (“wheels [or circles] of transformation”) became the centerpiece of the doctrine and practice of the Nath Siddhas–who claim their origins in the person and teachings of Matsyendranath. p4


Siddha Matsyendra, founder of the Yogini Kaula, shifted the emphasis of early tantrism away from the “terrible” practices and clan-based (Kula) system featured in the scriptures of the Vidya Pitha, and towards the erotico-mystical practices that became the bedrock of later Kaulism….The Trika reformers preserved, as a cult of their virtuosi, the erotic ritual of Matsyendra’s Yogini Kaula, described in the Kaulajnananirnaya. Whereas early (pre-A.D. 800) Trika and the Kaulajnananirnaya both emphasized the cult of yoginis (who were to be invoked with offerings and the communal consumption of blood, flesh, wine, and sexual fluids). p136-7

With the internalization of the sacrifice, the major conceptual and practical breakthrough of the Aranyakas and Upanishads, rasa [vital fluid] became identified with the “body as oblation” whose fluid essences were cooked and transformed over the well-tempered fires of ascetic ardor (tapas), fires that were fanned by winds of the vital breaths (prana). Once the bodily microcosm was transformed into the seat of the sacrifice (to the detriment of external sacrifice, which had been on the wane ever since the seventh century B.C. in India), interest in the internal workings of the body became greatly expanded. p184

The theory here is simple: stop this, that stops. But the practice is anything but simple as anyone who has attempted to maintain a yogic posture, sit still, or simply stop thinking for any length of time knows all too well. What a difficult, even heroic undertaking the immobilization of the body constitutes, yet what fantastic results it yields! For immobilization leads to reversal, reversal to transformation, and transformation is tantamount to bodily immortality and, precisely, to the supernatural ability to transform, reverse, or immobilize whatever one desires in the physical world (siddhi). p274 

Maintaining a yogic posture alone requires tremendous powers of concentration, and so we should not be surprised to find a quantitative measure of immobility combined with breath retention to be a yardstick for yogic integration. p294

In the Amanaska Yoga discussion of what it calls “salvific” or “stellar yoga”, the length of time one holds one’s breath (called the “time of absorption”: laya-kala) determines the degree of success (siddhi) one realizes, in a mounting progression. p316

The ideal Nath Siddha is a god-man who plays with the entire universe, with the lives of the great and small alike, as he pleases. Secure in the knowledge of the identity of microcosm and macrocosm, of the immanence of the Absolute in every creature and stone, he takes the universe to be his plaything, with its every element (nectar and ashes, cloaks and bodies, earrings and power of flight) interchangeable according to his whim. p349

david gordon white

David Gordon White is professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of several books, including The “Yoga Sutra of Patanjali”: A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books), Kiss of the Yogini, Yoga in Practice, and Sinister Yogis.

My other posts inspired by The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India

The Metaphysical Universe of Yoga

Vitruvian_macrocosmFew yoga books address the superstructure of the yogic system itself. The usual, run-of-the-mill books on yoga are merely descriptions of customs, rites, and beliefs: describing aspects of pranayama, physical postures, mantras, and chakras1. Typical authors describe the features of yoga and the practices of yogis. But, David Gordon White, author of The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions of Medieval India, addresses yoga as ultimately grounded in a body of metaphysical assumptions that date back to the Classical Upanishads2.

The Satapatha Brahmana declares: “This [ritual act] done now is that which the gods did then [in the beginning]”.

Three Hindu elements of sacrifice

Throughout the history of Hindu thought, declares White, there are three elements of sacrifice: fluid, fire, and air, or, rasa, agni, and vayu. Rasa is the liquid oblation of the human body (blood, semen, phlegm) and the divine fluid within the natural Universe. Agni is the sacrificial fire within the human body and of the solar heat of the Sun. Vayu is the breath or wind within the human being and the air throughout the Universe. Air, wind, and breath is always the activating mechanism, or, the main ingredient of the sacrificial rite of the yogin.


The Brahmanic sources assert, writes White, “the sacrifice in all its parts is identical to the universe and all its parts”. There is a three thousand year old Hindu superstructure composed of interpenetrating rituals and belief systems3. A cosmic superstructure is made of human + sacrifice + divine; or, of the microcosm, mesocosm, and macrocosm1. This macrocosm consists of the order of the natural Universe. The mesocosm contains the yogic system that arbitrates between the human being, the microcosm, and the Universe or macrocosm. The system of the microcosm is a miniature macrocosm within the human being.

Macrocosm: the Natural Universe
Mesocosm: the Yogic system, mechanism of sacrifice
Microcosm: the Human Being

Yogic sacrifice and cosmic order

Within this Hindu-yogic notion, only sacrifice can bridge the macrocosmic Universe with the microcosmic human being. A dual system, arbitrated by sacrificial rites, merges the human being with the Universal cosmos. This macrocosm-mesocosm-microcosm concept is fundamental to the yogic system and rituals.

ChakrasYogic transformation occurs through the sacrifice, by offering breath (pranayam) and “cooking” rasa by raising it up through the susumna, the invisible medial channel within the subtle yogic spinal column in the human body. This yogic sacrifice is the most important human activity, where men do as the gods do.

The Taittiriya Brahmana states: “Thus did the gods; thus do men.”

In the creation myth of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.7 we read: “He knew, ‘I indeed am this creation, for I created all this.’ Hence he became the creation, and he who knows this lives in this his creation.”

The Vedic sacrificer, argues White, sought to regulate the macrocosm as a way of ensuring cosmic order. In the same way, the yogin claims to be capable of interpenetrating the macrocosm and microcosm to transcend both and to liberate himself altogether from both. White sums up the sacrificial act of the yogin by quoting Vaidyaraj’s Vāmamārg:

“Om, thou the Goddess, resplendent by the oblation of dharma and non-dharma, into the fire of the self, using the mind as sacrificial ladle, along the path of the susumna, I who am engaging in harnessing the sense organs, constantly offer this oblation.”5

In upcoming posts, we will examine the yogic system and rituals of sacrifice.


1 Authors of books about Hinduism typically describe only its features, customs, and beliefs and not its superstructures. See Witzel, Mitchell. Macrocosm, mesocosm, and microcosm: The persistent nature of ‘Hindu’ beliefs and symbolic forms. Harvard University. Web 25 Feb 2015.

2 White, David Gordon. The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions of Medieval India. University of Chicago Press. 1996. Print. 26

3 ibid 16

4 ibid 15

5 ibid 28

Raising the Subtle Body

slough skinThe serpent is a yogic metaphor for death and eternal life. Before 500 BCE, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.4.7) said that the immortal soul sheds its mortal body “like a snake sloughs off its skin”. The serpent’s skins or sheaths, says David Gordon White in The Alchemical Body, are the layers between humanity and divinity, embodiment and essence1.

The sleeping “serpentine” power (kundalini) must arise out of the sheaths (kancukas) that bind and cover the soul (atman). The yogi practices techniques of pranayama (breath control) to awaken the sleeping serpent (kundalini) at the base of the spine in the subtle yogic body. As the kundalini serpent awakens, a series of subtler yogic bodies arise out of the ashes of death. Like peeling back the layers of an onion to get to the central essence, the advanced yogin achieves ecstasy (samadhi); the Siddha (liberated soul) is preserved in endless bliss and immortality.

Orphic-eggWhat dies? The gross body is a husk that is shed like the skin of a snake. Human creatures are endowed with kancukas (sheaths) while in the bosom of Maya (illusion), the material and impure world.  The Hindus and Buddhists devised the concept and practice of pranayama for the yogi to raise the serpent from the sheaths of the subtle yogic body. As White explains the purpose of the serpent metaphor in his book The Alchemical Body: The Siddha Traditions of Medieval India: “Here, [the supreme soul’s] yogic sleep is the divine model for samadhi of the human yogin who has withdrawn all breath, seed, and consciousness to concentrate these into a single point of pure being-consciousness-bliss”.

In Hindu and Buddhist yoga, the serpent metaphor represents death and eternal life. The snake sheds dead skin and reveals an innermost self. Likewise, the yogi sheds layers of his subtle body to reveal soul essence. The layers of the subtle body are removed, through pranayama, and die off until only an eternal essence remains, the atman (soul). Then the Siddha (liberated, perfected one) dwells in the abode of the gods in endless bliss of samadhi and immortality.


1 White, David Gordon. The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. University of Chicago Press. 1996. Print. p214

Serpents in Yogic Cosmology

buddha serpent
Buddha sits within coiled serprent

In Hindu cosmology, it is a coiled Serpent that contains the entire universe; at times when the universe is nonexistent (exactly half the time), he serves as the couch of the sleeping god Vishnu1. In yogic systems, a serpent is at the base of the subtle body within human beings; it is a coiled snake, kundalini, that contains the primal essence of the universe. The snake at the base of the subtle body, when awakened through yoga practice, reunites the yogin with the primal essence of the Universe. A micro- and macrocosmic serpent serves as a conduit, a bridge, between existence and non-existence, and is the basis of yogic systems.

The Puranic tale of Shesha illustrates the importance of the serpent in Hindu cosmology, yoga, and metaphysics.

Souls & Samadhi: A tale of Shesha

Shesha, coiled serpent floats on sea of ashes from which Mahayogi (Vishnu) sleeps in samadhi until he wakes up and recreates the universe
Shesha, coiled serpent floats on sea of ashes from which Mahayogi (Vishnu) sleeps in samadhi until he wakes up and recreates the universe

The Puranas (“of ancient times”) say that at the end of the great age (mahayuga), some 4,320,000 human years, the universe and all beings in it will be dissolved in a great cataclysm of fire and flood. Shiva, in his destruction, incinerates the entire material universe, but eternally preserves the subtle souls of liberated beings (Siddhas) in the highest realms (Lokas)–while all other beings have been annihilated in the great flood of fire, the end of the world2. The ashes from the burnt cosmos sink to the bottom of a milky sea within the coiled body of a Serpent, Shesha (“that which remains”).3

After the apocalypse, the Mahayogin (“great yogi”), Vishnu, rests in a state of samadhi (total yogic absorption) for a night of kalpa, 4.32 billion years. “Here”, writes David Gordon White, a scholar of yoga, “Vishnu’s yogic sleep is the divine model for the samadhi of the human yogin who has withdrawn all breath, seed, and consciousness, to concentrate these into a single point of pure being-consciousness-bliss [sat-chit-ananda]”. But, what happened to the external universe? It is preserved, in the serpent body of Shesha, who acts as Vishnu’s bed, where he rests in yogic ecstasy. When the Mahayogin Vishnu wakes from his blissful slumber the serpent Shesha (“that which remains”) renews himself using the primal essence of the previous creation. The residue from the previous creation are an endless source of raw material to regenerate new universes. For this reason, Shesha is also called Ananta, “Endless”, infinite”.4


The serpent is common imagery used in Hindu cosmology and metaphysics–in the microcosm of the human body and in the macrocosm of the universe is a coiled serpent. In the yogic system, a coiled snake (kundalini) sleeps at the base of the subtle body within human beings. In Hindu cosmology the serpent Shesha upholds the residue, the cosmic essence, of all creation with his coiled body. The serpent imagery serves as a bridge, a conduit, through which all creation sleeps and is reawakened by gods and by great yogis.

Question for readers: Do you have suggestions to help understand better the serpent imagery in the yoga system and Hindu cosmology?


1 The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, p58, David Gordon White, University of Chicago Press. 1996. Print

The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, p215, David Gordon White, University of Chicago Press. 1996. Print

4 ibid p216