The Yoga Sutra of Patañjali

The Royal Path

We know next to nothing about Patañjali, the author of the Yoga Sutra. Tradition tells us he is an incarnation of the serpent-god Ananta who descended from heaven to teach yoga to the world and is often represented in traditional statuary as a serpent, or as having a hood of many serpent heads. Many texts have been attributed to men of the name Patañjali, most significantly an exposition on Sanskrit grammar and a treatise on medicine, both of which are also ascribed to the author of the Yoga Sutra in India Tradition. Scholars date these texts as having come from widely different periods of history, however, with the Yoga Sutra thought to be the latest of them. This means he would have to have lived for several hundred years to have written all three.

Scholarly opinion dates the Yoga Sutra as being from the second century of the Christian Era. From the text we can see that Patañjali had a deep understanding of contemporary philosophy, coupled with great skill as a teacher. In his work he was able both to synthesize and add to the body of knowledge of the time. As a rule, yogis tend less to the intellectual and more to the practical side of philosophy. Their concern is to experience directly the higher states of consciousness that lead to emancipation from the continuous and eternal suffering of the material world. Patañjali seems to have combined the best of both, providing the how and the why of yogic practice. He outlines, with surprising clarity and detail for such a short work, the underlying rationale of the yogic perspective without getting lost in minutiae. More importantly, perhaps, is the attention he pays to the actual practices the seeker must work on in order to achieve the desired freedom. It is for this reason that the Yoga Sutra has survived for two thousand years and has been referred to and adapted to fit into the schemas of many other philosophical traditions of the Indian subcontinent.

The development of Yoga itself is inextricably tied to the ancient Vedic sacrificial religion, dating back some six thousand years. What we think of as yoga today most likely bears little resemblance to the yoga of Patañjali’s time. In the earliest days the union of man with the divine came in the form of elaborate ritual. As time passed a substantial body of work emerged as the great sages of the Vedas retreated into the forest to ponder the nature of reality. Eventually they theorized that the sacrificial rituals could be internalized in personal disciplines. A person could achieve a union with the divine through prayer, meditation and the consuming of specialized herbs enabling him to transcend material existence and rebirth.

There are three principle ways of thinking about yoga. Though to be derived from the Sanskrit verb “yuj” - to yoke, to join, to fasten together – the word can be used as a general term for any form of spiritual or meditative technique or practice. By bringing the mundane and the eternal together, the practitioner is able to realize the transcendent in our impermanent world. Over the centuries this idea has been applied to many of the different belief systems that have emerged from the foundations of Vedic literature. Thus we have Buddhist yoga as well as Jain and Hindu varieties.

(Excerpt from "Practicing Freedom: The Yoga Sutra of Patañjali" by Witold Fitz-Simon, $14.95, available now from or from the store.)

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