Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

Sreya Banerjee

Magic Science and Religion


Keywords: Patanjali, Yoga, Prakriti, Purusha, Hinduism, Buddhism, philosophy, Yoga Sutra, Samkhya


I. Abstract

 Yoga is a complex physical and spiritual discipline that is central to the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religious traditions of India. Patanjali was the author of a volume of commentaries on the practice of yoga. His version of yoga is considered to be the classical exposition of yoga. In this respect it must be mentioned that these practices are not something that Patanjali discovered. Yoga had long existed in India, developed by wandering ascetics and holy men. The Yoga Sutras are a systematic documentation of those various techniques and procedures involved in the practice of yoga.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras give us certain powerful techniques for countering the tyranny of private mental chaos and moral confusion.  The individual aspires to a suprasensory and supraintellectual experience of spiritual value that transforms and deepens his life, his understanding of reality and of his self.  Yoga goes beyond man’s everyday, ordinary existence. It provides man with the capacity to deal with the new vista of knowledge and perceptions that the state of transformation brings about. It is in this context that Patanjali analyzed matter and mind, their origin and relationship. Patanjali’s school is referred to as the Yoga System (Yoga Darshana) or Eight-Limbed Yoga (ashtanga yoga). It has also been variously called Kriya Yoga or Raja Yoga which means the active performance of yoga.


II. Scope and Purpose of the System

The word yoga has several possible connotations- to link, to harness, to bind closely or to bring under one yoke. Literally, it means yuj, which means to link (Eliade 9). Yoga leads one’s consciousness towards spiritual liberation. It is an esoteric discipline. Man must coordinate his activities and direct them towards higher spiritual achievements. The Yoga Sutras do not merely propound a system of philosophy but present valuable instruction to bring about certain philosophical states which will release us from the bondage of the material world and eventually help us attain salvation.

 Two important concepts of the Yoga Sutras are Purusha and Prakriti. Purusha is the spirit, that which has no material identity. But it is related to the phenomenal world. Ignorance binds it to the world. Released of the bondage it exists as pure consciousness and spiritual knowledge. Prakriti refers to the material nature of men. It has three distinct gunas (qualities) - lucidity (sattva), passion (rajas) and dark inertia (tamas).  Faculties of understanding are part of the material world. The thought process – citta is a combination of the mind (manas), intelligence (buddhi), and ego (ahamkara) (Miller 13).  Citta causes the purusha to remain bound to the prakriti and accumulation of subliminal memory. Purusha or the spirit can gain freedom only when the subconscious subliminal impressions are consumed and thoughts cease to exist. Detachment is required from the physical and mental world of activity. The goal of yoga is to liberate the subject from the tyranny of uncontrollable thought (A prototype of the doctrine of the soul was the Atman of the Upanishads. Purusha of the Samkhya yoga is similar to the Atman – independent of the material universe beginning-less and eternally unchanging).

Thus, it is essential that man is free of psychological chains because otherwise it is not possible to attain spiritual release. Existence of thought causes the spirit to be involved with the material world. To extricate the spirit and rise above the material world, one must conquer the attachment of mind and body to the material world.  Patanjali considers that to be possible only through the disciplined practice of Yoga.


III. Authority Structure

a. Sources and Criteria of Valid Knowledge

The closed circles of Indian ascetics and mystics knew of yoga practices long before Patanjali’s time (Eliade 15). Patanjali systematized the practices. He also borrowed from the philosophy of another system of Indian thought-Samkhya. The principal aim of Samkhya was to divorce Purusha (the spirit) from Prakriti (matter). Patanjali as prophet or sage incorporated the core elements of the Samkhya philosophy and added to it technical prescriptions for concentration, meditation and samadhi (ecstasy). He advanced yoga into a system of philosophy from a purely mystic tradition.

            Yoga belongs to the earliest periods of Indian thought. There is reference to yoga in early Hindu scriptures like Rig Veda which dates back to 100 BC. For example, the Kesin hymn (Rig Veda 10,136) is said to have been recorded by a sympathetic observer of the yoga tradition (Werner 104). Later on, yoga is prominent in Hindu epic poems –Mahabharata and Ramayana, as well as in the teachings of Buddha. It has been defined as a tradition that disciplines the mind and senses. It trains the mind to gain access to the deeper recesses of spiritual insight and power. In the latter part of the 6th Century, Buddha’s sermons have the greatest expressions of yogic ideas. Both his sermons of the “Four Noble Truths” and the “Eightfold Path” contain yogic elements. Patanjali, who composed the Yoga Sutras much later, incorporated Buddhist technical terminology and that is proof that he was aware of Buddhist ideas (Miller 9)

 The various commentaries on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are also an important source of information. Among them Yoga Bhasya written between 650 AD and 850 AD by Vyasa is the fundamental commentary on the Yoga Sutras. Other commentators include Bhoja, who wrote Rajamartanda in the 11th century AD and Ramananda Saraswati who wrote Maniprabha in the 7th Century AD. A number of sub commentaries were written as well. The most notable is Tattavavaisaradi by Vacaspati Misra in the middle of the 9th Century AD. It is considered as important as that of Vyasa. There also exists a sub-commentary by an 8th century scholar Sankara called Patanjalayogasutrabhasya (Tola xvii).


b. Methods of Inquiry

The philosophy propounded in the Yoga Sutras (sutra means aphorisms) is not just strict logical propositions dealing with the concept of reality in its entirety. It comprises strong ethical prescriptions and methods of systematic transformations of consciousness with the ultimate purpose of achieving “liberation” or “self realization”. All these are aimed to bring about certain psychological states.

The Yoga Sutras is divided into four different sections called padas. The first section deals with the necessity for cessation of thought and the cultivation of pure contemplation. The aphorisms included in this section define the nature of yoga as a state of mental tranquility and spiritual freedom (Miller 29). The eight limbs of the practice of yoga (Ashtanga Yoga) are described in the second chapter. Patanjali finishes defining yoga and begins the practical core of his teaching and identifies the causes for suffering in this section. Ignorance (avidya), egotism, passion, hatred and the will to live, have a corrupting influence. Ignorance means that we are unable to understand the true relation between the prakriti and the purusha. This suffering can be dispelled if one is committed to living the disciplined life guided by the eight interrelated disciplines of spiritual development- the ashtanga yoga.

 They are subdivided into two parts- External Yoga and Internal Yoga or Samyama.

I.  External Yoga

·        Yama (Abstinence): The yogi constantly endeavors to refrain from involving the mind in the complexities of the material world by practicing certain tenets like non violence, honesty, chastity etc (Werner 134).

·        Niyama (Observance): Observances like purity, contentment, asceticism, Vedic recitation and devotion to lord when practiced help the yogi’s efforts to prepare for achievements of a higher order (Werner 135).

·        Asana (Posture): Asana involves maintaining a stable and easy posture. It is essential for the yogi to assume a stable and agreeable physical position when training the mind to keep it free from bodily interferences (Werner 135).

·        Pranayama (Breath control): There is a close relation between the flow of respiration and the dynamics of the mind. Thus it is essential that a yogi can regulate his breathing practices (Werner 135)

·        Pratyahara (Sense-withdrawal): The mind has to withdraw itself from the activity of the senses. Otherwise the mind will be flooded with images derived from external objects (Werner 135).

II. Samyama (Mental Control)

·        Dharana (Concentration): The aim of dharana is to focus the mind on a particular object of its internal experience (Werner 135).

·        Dhyana (Meditation): Meditation is the unwavering attention to a single object, a continuous flow of attention to a particular idea uninterrupted by any external knowledge (Miller 61).

·        Samadhi: Samadhi is achieved when the meditative subject is so completely immersed in the object of meditation that the distinction between subject and object disappear (Miller 61).

The third pada is specifically devoted to the last three limbs of this practice for these are the most significant. The last three limbs are about the integrated discipline by which the yogi acquires his powers. Once that occurs, the individual can transcend the limitations of worldly knowledge and attain endless powers that are manifested in the yogi in the hyperconscious state of perfect discipline called samyama. The powers are achieved by the three limbs of yogic practice- concentration, meditation and pure contemplation.  The yogi inculcates extraordinary states of consciousness and physical capacities which include invisibility, superhuman strength, knowledge of past lives, working of the cosmos and the microcosm of the body, as well as control over the physical needs of hunger and thirst (Miller 61). The element of magic that such powers bring with them must be overcome if the yogi wants to attain real freedom and feel the full extent of his power. The ultimate aim of yoga is not to attain magical powers but spiritual freedom.

The fourth pada explores the nature of absolute spiritual freedom which is the ultimate goal of yoga and reinforces analyses of the relation between the spirit and the material world.

Patanjali adopted a step by step approach for the attainment of spiritual freedom. He presents the various methods of achieving spiritual liberation by introducing the idea of drastr which means pure observer. He elucidates the methods by which the individual can assume the role of a mere observer in relation to the external, visible world without participating in it. He also introduces the idea of dispassion and dedication to the Lord (isvara) who is the supreme spirit of Yoga. Here Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra differs from Samkhya, the ancient school of thought from where he borrows majority of his philosophical thoughts. Samkhya is a completely atheist philosophy (Eliade 16). But in the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali gives a position of importance to Isvara. However the main concept still remains the idea of pure contemplation (samadhi) which can lead to detachment from the material world.

            “All is suffering for the wise man” wrote Patanjali. (Eliade, 20) However, there was no sense of pessimism underlying yoga, for it has an intrinsic positive effect. It inspires man to transcend the material world to attain true freedom. Suffering is a cosmic necessity and unlike Isvara or other creatures only man has the power to rise above it. Man has been given the power to nullify the forces of karma (karma having the connotation work action and destiny).  However, illusion or ignorance exists between the eternal purusha and the psycho-mental world. And it is through constant struggle with the forces of ignorance that man can use his powers to attain mukti or freedom.

The concept of the divine being is an interesting aspect in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. The inclusion of the eight fold path within Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra limits the role of the Lord or Isvara. It places greater emphasis on the role of the individual and is designed without reliance on Isvara. However in keeping with the traditions and beliefs of the time, the Lord exists in Patanjali’s yoga and provides help to those who believe in him. He could be considered to be the eternal freedom, that is the aim of yoga, but he is not the creator or the cause of the existence of the universe. He is unlike the innumerable eternal beings or purushas only because he has never been entangled in samsaric (phenomenal) existence. Isvara in the yoga system is that purusha who is distinguished from all others by the fact that he remains untouched by the afflictions of fruits of karma (Dasgupta 159)  Isvara can accelerate the process of deliverance and helps the individual attain samadhi more quickly (Eliade 86)


 c. Institutions and Professional Structure

The earliest references to yogic practices are found in the Upanishads and the Buddhist texts. However, it had not been documented as a single subject in written form. Neither was it handed down through generations via any sort of formal institutions. However, there existed the guru shishya tradition, that is, the student-teacher tradition. It is believed that yoga was handed down in this manner from generation to generation. The basic traditions of yoga, thus since ancient times, had been handed passed on as an oral tradition, until Patanjali codified the practices of yoga in one document. Thus, he was neither the founder nor the leader of a new movement (Werner 131).

As to whether Patanjali actually started any institution of yoga, there have always been doubts. He might have been a maverick yogin who composed aphorisms but did not engage in teaching thereby leaving no pupils to carry on the tradition. But it is not possible that a yogin of Patanjali’s stature would not have had students eager to learn from him. And it is unlikely that one of these students would not have carried the tradition forward. There are individuals who allege to have connections with Patanjali. Swami Hariharananda Aranya (1869-1947) claimed that his teacher Swami Triloka Aranya was a descendant of the line of gurus (teachers) established by Patanjali himself. (Feurstein 4)


IV. History

Nothing definite is known about Patanjali. He is often confused with the Sanskrit grammarian composer of Mahabhasya, a text composed in the 2nd Century B.C. A few other sources consider him to be a reincarnation of the mythical serpent Ananta or Shesha, on whom the Hindu god Vishnu rests before the cycle of creation. According to these sources, the serpent assumed human form and took the name of Patanjali for the benefit of mankind. (Miller, 7)

Historians are not exactly sure of the time period and the authorship of the Yoga Sutras as there is no real historical evidence regarding Patanjali or the composition. However, it is commonly accepted that the grammarian Patanjali and the yogin Patanjali were probably two different people and that Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras lived between 300 and 500 BC. His work is the earliest work to have codified yogic practices and analyses. The techniques elaborated by Patanjali are very old and had probably been tested centuries before him. Patanjali basically compiled a practical handbook of very old techniques.


V. Representative Examples of Argumentation

There has been an interest to understand why yoga came about. There are features of human psyche that justify a psychological explanation for the origin of yoga. Patanjali did not base his theories on mere dogmatic ideas. Only by a proper analysis of mind and matter, their origin and their relationship could Patanjali hope to influence his audience. Since he was not presenting an altogether new philosophy, to support his theories of the yogic cosmology, he borrowed from the ancient Indian classical school of thought-Samkhya. He borrowed almost the entire Samkhya philosophy except for the addition of the concept of Isvara (God).

However, unlike the Samkhya philosophy, he did not believe that metaphysical powers could lead to the emancipation. Mukti or freedom could be attained only through stages of intense struggle with the material world. The idea is that the more man suffers, the more he is bound to the cosmos with samsara and the greater is his urge to attain salvation. The weapons that would assist in the struggle are contemplation and a devotion to the techniques of asceticism. A few examples will help to elucidate further.

One of the techniques is pranayama- breath control. It is the                             “refusal” to breathe like the general rum of men - that is, in an unrhythmic fashion (Eliade 69). The basic aim of pranayama is to prevent the irregularity or fluctuations in respiration which have a negative effect creating “psychic fluidity and, consequently, instability and diffusion of attention.” This can be prevented by enforcing a slow rhythm on respiration, thereby pacing the rhythm so that it can become automatic and involuntary.  Mastery of this practice has helped yogis succeed in remaining underwater for several hours. Such cataleptic states can be brought on by experienced yogis.  According to Dr Therese Brosse, the reduction of respiration and of cardiac contraction, a state that is only exhibited at the brink of death, is an authentic physiological phenomenon that yogis can produce by an effort of will and not at all through the effects of autosuggestion. Such a yogi can be buried alive (Eliade 72).

The yogis therefore strive to dominate their bodies in order to penetrate the secret of psychosomatic life. They do not involve themselves in exhibitionism but work towards attaining absolute freedom and perfect autonomy and this entails a long complex labor of conditioning.

Patanjali introduced the concept of Isvara to bring about a whole series of experiences that only concentration on Isvara could bring about. Thus together with the purely traditional aspect of Yoga which involves personal will and strength of the ascetic, Patanjali incorporated  a mystical aspect that made the final stages of yoga simpler because it meant invoking God (Eliade 88).


VI. Suggested Position in Comparative Scales

  1. Tradition(1)----Experience(10):6

There is a fine line of distinction between tradition and experience. The entire documentation of the practices of yoga is based on a system that existed within an elusive group of ascetics in the Vedic Period.  But their practices come into existence from experience. Followers of this system need to personally experience yogic practices before they can feel the effects of the system. In this sense it is esoteric.

B. Divine Authority (1) ------- Individual Authority (10):7

Patanjali places greater importance on the individual involved in yogic practices. The Lord or Isvara does not have any great influence over this system. Isvara does not have any control over removing the barriers that help us attain spiritual liberation. Patanjali’s yogic technology in the Yoga Sutras implies that the subject can determine his future.         The Lord is considered synonymous with the idea of spiritual liberation. The individual through powers of concentration and strict adherence to the principles of Yoga can transcend the material world and reach an elevated state. Isvara can however help accelerate the process of deliverance.

C. Goal-Moral/Spiritual (1) -----Goal-Practical (10): 4

Yoga as in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras has a greater moral and spiritual purpose than a practical one. There is a constant drive to transcend the limitations that are imposed by the material world and to separate the soul from the physical self. The yoga philosophy has a practical tone so far as the methods cited for achieving salvation are concerned.


Annotated Bibliography

Primary Sources

Eliade, Mircea. Patanjali and Yoga.  Trans. Charles Lam Markman. New York: Schoken Books, 1975

Mircea helps identify the primary aspects of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.  It is also a good source for the origins of Yoga. Extensively discusses the techniques of yoga.

Miller Stoler, Barbara. Yoga Discipline of Freedom. The Yoga Sutra attributed to Patanjali. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995

 This book provides comprehensive and clear commentary of the Yoga Sutras. The book is organized systematically. It elucidates the aphorisms in the four padas. She also provides a glossary of certain prominent words and concepts.

Secondary Sources

Dasgupta, Surendranath. Yoga-As Philosophy and Religion Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1924

 Dasgupta offers an exposition of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras based on the commentaries Vyasa, Vacaspati and others. His analysis of the concepts of Purusha and Prakriti and Isvara are particularly interesting.

Werner, Karl. Yoga and Indian Philosophy. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1977

 The book contains important ideas about the origin and purposes of Yoga. Werner also provides details about the different schools of Yoga.

Feuerstein, Georg  The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. London: Dawson, 1975

Feuerstein offers a clear and precise translation of the aphorisms of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Each word is thoroughly explained and is extremely helpful for any person interested in Patanjali’s words.

Tola, Fernando. Dragonetti, Carmen. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali on Concentration of  Mind. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, 1987

A specific analysis of Patanjali’s Yoga that deals with his writings on the concentration of mind. The authors also provide comments from the commentaries that were written on the Yoga Sutra and criticism of their works.