Was Patañjali truly important?
29 August 2022
Assess the importance of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra in the history of yoga.
James Russell, MA Student, SOAS, University of London
The Pātañjalayogaśāstra - 'Patañjali's Authoritative Exposition of Yoga' is a Sanskrit treatise composed by Patañjali in approximately 400 CE (Maas 2020:1). The Pātañjalayogaśāstra is the foundational text for the yoga darśana (viewpoint) of Indian philosophy, and Pātañjalayoga has become synonymous with 'Classical Yoga'. The Pātañjalayogaśāstra comprises two layers of text: one consisting of 195 aphorisms commonly referred to as yogasūtras (or the Yogasūtra) and another consisting of an explanatory auto-commentary. The yogasūtras and auto-commentary are often presented as two separate works with the commentary titled the Yogabhāṣya and ascribed to Vyāsa. However, Philipp Maas (2013) has demonstrated convincingly that both layers were authored by Patañjali and constitute one unified text. This article will treat the Pātañjalayogaśāstra as a whole and will investigate its composition and status in premodern India. The Pātañjalayogaśāstra's reception will be examined as well as its influence on other yogic traditions. In this way, it will be possible to assess the importance of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra in the broad context of yoga's history.
Patañjali was a Brahmin who lived in India between 350 and 450 CE, possibly in the west of the province today known as Madhya Pradesh (Maas 2020:1). His command of Sanskrit and philosophy suggest that he was a scholar rather than a yogi. In the centuries following his death, Patañjali became credited with the authorship of two additional texts he could not have composed: the Vyākaraṇa-mahābhāṣya, a second-century work on grammar; and the Carakasaṃhitā, a first-century work on Āyurveda. Thus, in the conclusion of Śaṅkara's eighth-century1 Pātañjalayogaśāstravivaraṇa, Patañjali is lauded as a guru of yoga, grammar and medicine (Bühnemann 2018:580). The Naṭarāja Temple in Cidambaram ascribes five additional texts to Patañjali, who is represented in twelfth-century statues as a demi-serpentine nāga and devotee of Śiva (Bühnemann 2018:582). The mythologisation of Patañjali has continued and become enshrined within his quasi-historical legacy. In the 1980s, Krishnamacharya linked Patañjali with the snake-god, Ādiśeṣa, and it has become a custom of Krishnamacharya's lineage to commence yoga by invoking Ādiśeṣa and reciting Śaṅkara's eighth-century homage (Bühnemann 2018:578). In 2009, India Post released a commemorative stamp depicting Patañjali as an authority on yoga, grammar and Āyurveda.
Patañjali was primarily influenced by a strand of Sāṃkhya philosophy, with similarities to the now-extinct Ṣaṣṭitantra2 (Maas 2017). The Pātañjalayogaśāstra reveals Patañjali's additional familiarity with Mīmāṃsā and Vaiśeṣika philosophies, as well the influence of the early Purāṇas (Maas 2020:9-10). The influence of the Mahābhārata is demonstrated in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra's advocacy of mental control through abhyāsa (practice) and vairāgya (detachment) (1.12) - which echoes Bhagavadgītā 6.353. Patañjali's systematisation of aṣṭāṅgayoga (2.29) may also be inspired by the Mahābhārata, which alludes to an eightfold yoga in the Vedas (12.304.7) and posits two other eightfold doctrines, containing elements which resemble parts of Patañjali's aṣṭāṅgayoga (Mallinson & Singleton 2017:8). It is noteworthy that Patañjali's third auxiliary of aṣṭāṅgayoga is the first textual source to list a variety of (twelve) meditative postures (1.46).
The Pātañjalayogaśāstra is indebted to Buddhism and contains numerous Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit terms (Wujastyk 2018). The Pātañjalayogaśāstra's four stages of mental absorption (1.17)4 and four means of realisation (1.20)5 both originate in Buddhism, and Patañjali's views on suffering (2.15 - 2.17) closely resemble the four noble truths of Buddhism (Dasgupta 1922:237). The Pātañjalayogaśāstra is also informed by the fourth-century6 Buddhist work, the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya7. Jain influences are present too, and Patañjali's yamas (restraints) comprise five ethical precepts (Pātañjalayogaśāstra 2.30), which mirror the five mahāvratas (great vows) of Jainism (Ācārāṅga-sūtra 2.15, Jacobi 2008:202-210). Patañjali's four realms of rebirth (3.18) are identical to the gatis of Jaina cosmology (Kalpa-sūtra 121, Jacobi 2008: 263,264), and Patañjali's four categories of karma (4.7) are similar to the Jaina leśyās (Uttarādhyayana Sūtra 34.1-34.9, Jacobi 2015:161)
The Pātañjalayogaśāstra is thus a synthesis of ideas drawn from earlier sources and is an example of Brahmanical appropriation of Śramaṇa technologies which are repurposed within a Sāṃkhya paradigm. T.S. Rukmani has noted: "The greatness of Patañjali lies in the skill with which he fitted these various traditions into a framework having as its ultimate goal kaivalya or liberation" (Rukmani 1981:213).
From the fifth century onwards, references to the Pātañjalayogaśāstra occur in diverse literary sources, e.g., a fifth-century commentary of Bhartṛhari's Vākyapadīya and the sixth-century Viṣṇudharmottara-purāṇa (Freschi & Maas 2017:55-56, White 2014:35). Patañjali's Yogaśāstra also became known within Buddhist circles, and the fifth-century author Buddhaghosa is chronicled as following Patañjali before his conversion to Buddhism (Freschi & Maas 2017:56). The Pātañjalayogaśāstra was initially well received by Sāṃkhya authors such as Gauḍapāda and Māṭhara but subsequently attracted critique from authors with alternative philosophical affiliations, such as Vātsyāyana and Bhartṛhari (Maas 2020:10).
By the ninth century, dissemination of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra had moved beyond specialist philosophical circles. The Vaiṣṇava poet Māgha's epic poem, the Śiśupālavadha (ca.750 CE8), makes several references to the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, as does the Śaiva poet Ratnākara's Haravijaya (ca.830 CE9). These references demonstrate the reception of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra within both Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava milieus. In the tenth century, Vallabhadeva's Saṃdehaviṣauṣadhi acknowledges and expands on the Śiśupālavadha's earlier references, suggesting widespread recognition of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra during this period (Freschi & Maas 2017:47-56). Phillip Maas has concluded: "This indicates the PYŚ (Pātañjalayogaśāstra) was known as an authoritative work on yoga even outside yogic or philosophical circles for several centuries after its composition" (Freschi & Maas 2017:55).
The Yoga School
Pātañjalayoga is one of the six darśanas (viewpoints) of Indic philosophy. Each darśana denotes an intellectual school with a commentarial tradition based upon a foundational sūtra text. The colophon of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra refers to itself as a work on Sāṃkhya, suggesting that yoga was initially considered a subsidiary of Sāṃkhya rather than a distinct philosophical school. Haribhadra's eighth-century10 Ṣaḍdarśanasamuccaya does not include a yoga school within its taxonomy of six darśanas. Similarly, Mādhava's fourteenth-century11 Sarvasiddhāntasaṃgraha does not include a yoga school. However, it does distinguish between atheistic and theistic Sāṃkhya, aligning the latter with Patañjali (Nicholson 2014: 82). The twelfth-century Sarvasiddhāntasaṃgraha does classify Pātañjalayoga as a darśana (Mallinson & Singleton 2017: xxxvi). The twelfth-century Sarvadarśanakaumudi12 and the sixteenth to seventeenth-century13 Sāṃkhyapravacanabhāṣya also both acknowledge Pātañjalayoga as a philosophical school (Nicholson 2014: 81-82). Therefore, the classification of Pātañjalayoga as a distinct philosophical school is a comparatively recent development. The current canonical status of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra does not necessarily indicate its recognition as a foundational philosophical text in premodern India.
Irrespective of Pātañjalayoga's autonomy from Sāṃkhya, numerous authors composed commentaries on the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, of which these have been the most influential:
• The Pātañjalayogaśāstravivaraṇa - Śaṅkara (ca.700 CE14)
• The Tattvavaiśāradī - Vāscaspatimiśra (ca. 950CE15)
• The Rājamārtaṇḍa - Bhojarāja (ca.11th century16)
• Yogavārttika - Vijñānabhikṣu (ca.16th century17)
Apart from Bhojarāja, all the leading commentators position themselves as outsiders to Patañjali's system. Śaṅkara has been linked, albeit inconclusively, to the Advaita Vedāntin, Śaṅkarācārya (Maas 2020:11). Vāscaspatimiśra composed commentaries on numerous philosophical treatises and was able to argue convincingly from a variety of conflicting standpoints (Burley 2007:85,86). Vijñānabhikṣu authored commentaries on several darśanas and attempted to reconcile their views through the lens of Viśiṣṭādvaita philosophy (White 2014:45). Only Bhojarāja was an actual proponent of Pātañjalayoga. Although many commentaries were composed on the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, they were predominantly produced by specialists rather than members of an actual yoga school. It may be that authoring a commentary on the Pātañjalayogaśāstra became an academic exercise, de rigueur, rather than an indictment of the text's significance amongst practitioners of yoga.
In the eleventh century, the Perso-Muslim scholar Al-Bīrūnī composed an Arabic translation of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra titled the Kitāb Pātanğal (ca.1017-1030 CE18), which he later references in his Kitāb al-Hind (1030 CE19). Rather than a purely literal translation, the Kitāb Pātanğal is a work of naqlu - a term denoting the transmission of ideas from the vernacular of one language to another (Maas & Verdon 2018:286). Al-Bīrūnī takes many liberties with the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, which he furnishes with a rich new dialogue, replete in Arabic metaphor. Al-Bīrūnī rejects the Sāṃkhya-orientated duality of the original text and equates liberation with absorption in god. The Kitāb Pātanğal is a creative elaboration on the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, which breathes new life into many of Patañjali's dry aphorisms. The impact of the Kitāb Pātanğal remains uncertain. Georg Feuerstein states that the work "may well have had a lasting influence on the development of Persian mysticism" (2008:235). However, Carl Ernst points out that both the Kitāb al-Hind and the Kitāb Pātanğal survive today in single manuscripts, indicating limited readership (Ernst 2016:405). Nonetheless, the Kitāb Pātanğal is the first known translation of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra into a second language and is an early encounter between yoga and Islam. Additionally, the Kitāb Pātanğal demonstrates the Pātañjalayogaśāstra's potential for adaptation and transcultural dissemination.
The fifteenth-century Dharma Pātañjala (1450 CE20) is an Indo-Javanese treatise containing a presentation of Pātañjalayoga, which shares details with Al-Bīrūnī's work. Therefore, both authors may have worked from a similar source commentary. The existence of the Dharma Pātañjala establishes that by the fifteenth century, knowledge of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra had extended as far as South East Asia (Acri 2016:260).
The sixteenth-century A'in-i Akbari ('Institutes of Akbar') by Abu al-Fazl, contains a section on yoga that includes a synopsis of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra. Al-Fazl combined the Pātañjalayogaśāstra with haṭhayoga and transposed the text into an Islamic idiom (White 2014:149-150). Abu al-Fazl's reference to the Pātañjalayogaśāstra demonstrates the text's continued recognition in sixteenth-century Mughal India as a source of credible information on yoga.
Tantra and haṭhayoga
From the sixth to thirteenth century, tantra emerged as India's dominant religion, incorporating within its vast praxis, mantra, ritual and yoga. Tantric yoga typically adopts a six-auxiliary framework and involves methods of interior visualisation, which share some general concerns with Pātañjalayoga, e.g. contemplation and breath-control. However, tantric yoga remains essentially distinct from Pātañjalayoga. As David Gordon White has noted: "very few tantric schools or sects have ever explicitly linked their theory of practice to Patañjali's legacy" (White 2014:6).
Patañjali's influence is, however, discernible in some early haṭhayoga manuals such as the Dattātreyayogaśāstra (ca.13th century21), Vasiṣṭhasaṃhitā (c.13th century22) and Yogayājñavalkya (13th -14th century23). The authors of these texts adopt the framework of eight auxiliaries, expand on the yamas & niyamas and overlay the remaining auxiliaries with tantra and haṭhayoga practices. All three texts equate samādhi with absorption in brahman24.
Later haṭhayoga manuals continue to adopt the eightfold schema, and Hargreaves & Birch (2016) have located numerous examples of quotations from the Pātañjalayogaśāstra in the Yogacintāmaṇi (c.16th century25) and the Yuktabhavadeva (c.17th century26). Hargreaves & Birch conclude: "In fact, generally speaking, the eightfold system of Aṣṭāṅgayoga became the dominant paradigm for the majority of yoga texts composed after the fifteenth century" (Hargreaves & Birch 2016:9).
Sundaradeva's eighteenth-century27 Haṭhatattvakaumudī contains numerous references to Pātañjalayoga and also adopts eight auxiliaries, stating that "aṣṭāṅgayoga should be considered in the mainstream of knowledge itself" (1.25.2, Gharote 2007:9). Sundaradeva demonstrates extensive knowledge of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra and paraphrases Patañjali in numerous verses. The Haṭhatattvakaumudi's conceptions of saṃprajñāta, asaṃprajñāta, and dharmamegha samādhi28 all borrow extensively from the Pātañjalayogaśāstra and Sundaradeva directly quotes from the Pātañjalayogaśāstra in his summaries of pratipakṣa-bhāvana (6.5)29 and dhyāna (49.2-3)30.
Brahmānanda's nineteenth-century31 Jyotsnā32 commentary on the Haṭhapradīpikā is also indebted to the Pātañjalayogaśāstra. Brahmānanda borrows numerous concepts from Patañjali, e.g. the five kleśas (3.14) originate in Pātañjalayogaśāstra 1.5, and the vāsanās (4.22) originate in Pātañjalayogaśāstra 4.8. The fourth chapter makes multiple references to Patañjali, and nine verses contain direct quotations from the Pātañjalayogaśāstra33. It is noteworthy that Brahmānanda equates samādhi with Patañjali's definition of yoga, "samādheścittavṛttinirodhasya" (4.63). Brahmānanda later similarly equates rājayoga with the controlling of all the mental vrittis "rājayogasya manasaḥ sarvavṛttinirodha-lakṣaṇasya" (4.102). This semantic parallel is an early correlation between rājayoga and Pātañjalayoga.
The Pātañjalayogaśāstra also helped to shape the development of Jainayoga. Haribhadra's eighth-century Yogadṛṣṭisamuccaya (c. 750 CE34) expounds an eightfold yoga that links the guṇasthāna stages of Jainism with Patañjali's aṣṭāṅgayoga. Haribhadra sought to attract Jainayoga to a wider audience by locating it within a well-established Brahmanical intellectual tradition. Śubhacandra's eleventh-century35 Jñānārṇava and Hemacandra's Yogaśāstra (ca.1150 CE36) are also both influenced by Patañjali and, in the seventeenth century, Yaśovijaya composed a Jaina commentary on the Pātañjalayogaśāstra (Chapple 2017:27). In the modern period, Prekṣā meditation is a popular form of Jainayoga that combines Patañjali's aṣṭāṅgayoga with several other doctrines.
The Pātañjalayogaśāstra first received attention from European scholars in the early nineteenth century and was discussed in essays by William Ward (1810) and Thomas Colebrook (1823). David Gordon White has credited Colebrook with rediscovering the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, which White claims had fallen into obscurity for several hundred years: "The yogasūtra had for all intents and purposes been lost until Colebrooke found it" (White 2014:60). White's claim is primarily based on early Indologists' difficulty in locating paṇḍits familiar with Patañjali and an alleged scarcity of Pātañjalayogaśāstra manuscripts at this time (White 2014: 73,77). However, White's assertion is contradicted by the fact that commentaries on the Pātañjalayogaśāstra were still being produced by Indian scholars at this time, e.g. the eighteenth-century Yogasudhākara and the nineteenth-century Patañjalicarita (Burley 2012:31). Additionally, Seth Powell has noted that the Descriptive Catalogue of Yoga Manuscripts (Kaivalyadham 2005) contains information on several hundred Pātañjalayogaśāstra related manuscripts composed between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries (Powell 2018:353). Furthermore, Phillip Maas has located over 120 Pātañjalayogaśāstra manuscripts copied during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Maas 2020:2).
The first English translation of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra was authored by James Ballantyne and published by the Theosophical Society in 1885. The Theosophists championed the Pātañjalayogaśāstra as authoritative Indian spirituality and generated considerable interest in India and beyond. Rājendralāl Mitra authored a translation of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra in 1883, including a translation of Bhojarāja's commentary. The most influential work on Patañjali at this time was undoubtedly Swāmi Vivekānanda's Rāja Yoga (1896). Vivekānanda uncoupled the yogasūtras from their auto-commentary, allowing him to reinterpret Patañjali's broad aphorisms more creatively. This same formula would later be employed by scores of translators in the twentieth century. Vivekānanda's self-styled commentary projects Pātañjalayoga through the lens of Neo-Vedanta - fused with psychology and esoterica. Vivekānanda unequivocally presents Pātañjalayoga as the classical and superior yoga. Rāja Yoga was wildly successful, and its first edition sold out within the first year (De Michelis 2008:125). It is the first work on Indian philosophy to receive widespread international interest and has been described by Elizabeth De Michelis as "the first fully-fledged formulation of Modern Yoga" (De Michelis 2008:50).
Early twentieth-century publications from Aleister Crowley (1913,1939) and Ernest Woods (1932) on Pātañjalayoga reflect the subsequent popularity of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra in western occultism. The Pātañjalayogaśāstra also received attention from academic authors at this time, most notably James Haughton Woods (1914). Meanwhile, in India, T. Krishnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda (1934) linked haṭhayoga with aṣṭāṅgayoga in a similar vein as earlier works such as the Yogayājñavalkya. Two of Krishnamacharya's students, B.K.S. Iyengar and K.P. Jois would go on to popularise haṭhayoga linked with Pātañjalayoga. B.K.S. Iyengar revered Patañjali as the "Father of Yoga" (Iyengar 1966), and his postural yoga system includes the mandatory chanting of Śaṅkara's homage to Patañjali. Iyengar later published a translation of the Yogasūtras in 1994 and, in 2004, inaugurated a shrine to Patañjali at Bellur. K.P. Jois's Yoga Mala (1962) combines haṭhayoga with three auxiliaries of aṣṭāṅgayoga, and Jois' postural system later became popularly known as 'Ashtanga Vinyasa'. In the 1960s, the Beatles association with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi generated a fresh wave of interest in yoga which coincided with the burgeoning growth in modern postural yoga led by teachers such as B.K.S. Iyengar. By the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, scores of translations and adaptations of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra had been produced, largely adopting a creative approach, not unlike that of Al-Bīrūnī in the tenth century and Vivekānanda a thousand years later. The Pātañjalayogaśāstra has now been translated into over 40 languages (White 2014:xvi) and, in contemporary globalised yoga, is regarded as the authoritative text for the philosophy of yoga.
The Pātañjalayogaśāstra is primarily a collation of earlier works from Brāhmaṇa and Śramaṇa milieus. Patañjali's distinctive contribution to yoga is his synthesis of disparate teachings through a filter of salvific dualism. Doctrines of Jainism, Buddhism and Sāṃkhya combine in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra to become indelibly associated with yoga. The Pātañjalayogaśāstra was initially well-received, and numerous literary references between the fifth and eleventh centuries attest to its status as an important work on yoga. The Pātañjalayogaśāstra was also translated into Arabic and Old Javanese, indicating its widespread dissemination.
The Pātañjalayogaśāstra was not considered the foundational text of a philosophical school until at least the twelfth century - suggesting both its close association with the Sāṃkhya school and its subordinate position to the foundational texts of rival philosophical schools. Although a commentarial tradition evolved, most commentaries were authored by scholars rather than yogis or proponents of Patañjali's system. From the sixth to thirteenth centuries, the religious landscape in South Asia became dominated by tantra in which yogic methods remained distinct from Pātañjalayoga. However, the Pātañjalayogaśāstra did contribute to the development of Jainayoga at this time, as Jain authors sought to attract followers through assimilating ideas from the Pātañjalayogaśāstra. Pātañjalayoga also influenced haṭhayoga, as evinced by numerous works which adopt aṣṭāṅgayoga. Although Patañjali's practical systematisation of aṣṭāṅgayoga has been highly influential, particularly within haṭhayoga, other theoretical elements of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra have proven to be less enduring. Patañjali's dualistic soteriology has often been omitted in favour of nondual Vedantic conceptions of liberation.
In the modern period, the Pātañjalayogaśāstra directly influenced the early formulation of Modern Yoga. The subsequent global popularisation of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra in the twentieth century, combined with Patañjali's mythologisation, has resulted in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra enjoying a prestige far beyond its stature in premodern India. Nonetheless, the fact that one short text comprising 195 aphorisms and a commentary is still relevant after 1600 years attests to its enduring significance. Having been translated into over 40 languages and published globally, millions of people now continue to glean meaning and draw inspiration from this enigmatic work.
1) Legget 2017:1.
2) As summarised in the fifth-century Sāṃkhyakārikā (Maas 2017).
3) The Bhagavadgītā forms a part of the Bhīṣma parvan of the Mahābhārata.
4) Correspond with Buddhist stages of meditation (Bronkhorst 2009:188).
5) Correspond with the four powers of Buddhism in the Milindapañha (Maas 2020:9).
6) Wujastyk estimates 350 - 430 CE (2018:38). Maas' 2020 estimation of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra at 400 CE, means the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya is approximately 350 - 400 CE.
7) Maas 2014, O'Brien-Kop 2018.
8) Freschi & Maas 2017: Maas, 50.9) Freschi & Maas 2017: Maas, 50.
10) Nicholson 2014:81.
11) Nicholson 2014:82.
12) Vidyabhusana 2016: i-vii.
13) Nicholson 2014:6.
14) Legget 1990:1.
15) Maas 2020:11.
18) Maas & Verdon 2018:286.
19) Maas & Verdon 2018:286.
20) Acri 2016:260.
21) Mallinson & Singleton 2017:xl.
22) Mallinson & Singleton 2017:xl.
23) Birch 2018:7.
24) E.g. Vasiṣṭhasaṃhitā 4.61 (Kaivalyadhama 2017:83).
25) Hargreaves & Birch 2016:5.
26) Hargreaves & Birch 2016:9.
27) Mallinson & Singleton 2017:xl.
28) The Haṭhatatvakaumudi:49.5, 49.23-24, 49.40.
29) This mirrors Pātañjalayogaśāstra 2.33.
30) This verse quotes Pātañjalayogaśāstra 3.2.
31) Mallinson & Singleton 2017:95.
32) Jyotsnā 2.48 advises prostration before Ādiśeṣa, but does not explicitly mention Patañjali. This may be a source for Krishnamacharya's reference in Yoga Makaranda (1934) (Krishnamacharya 2011).
33) Jyotsnā (J) 4.1= Pātañjalayogaśāstra (PYŚ) 1.26, J 4.6 = unknown, J 4.7 = PYŚ 1.51, J 4.12 = PYŚ 1.2, J 4.15 = PYŚ 1.49, J 4.93 = PYŚ 3.2, J 4.107 = PYŚ 1.3, J 4.108 = PYŚ 4.30, J 4.114 = PYS 2.2 and 1.23.
34) Chapple 2017:126.
35) Chapple 2017:22.
36) Chapple 2017:126.
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