The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are one of the six darshanas of Hindu or Vedic schools and, alongside the Bhagavad Gita and Hatha Yoga Pradipika, are a milestone in the history of Yoga. The book is a set of 195 aphorisms (sutras), which are short, terse phrases designed to be easy to memorize. Though brief, the Yoga Sutras are an enormously influential work that is just as relevant for yoga philosophy and practice today as it was when it was written.
To understand the work's title, it is necessary to consider the meanings of its two component words. The Sanskrit word Yoga, as used by Patanjali, refers to a state of mind where thoughts and feelings are held in check. Sutra means "thread". This is a reference to the thread of a Japa mala, upon which (figuratively speaking) the yoga aphorisms that make up the work's content are strung like beads. For that reason the title is sometimes rendered in English as the Yoga Aphorisms.
The Padma Purana defines a sutra as "A sutra should have few alphabets (alpa-akshara), an unambiguous meaning, be full of essence (sara-yukta), said only after considering all arguments for and against it, infallible and without blemish."
Traditionally, the most prominent commentary is that of Vyasa, to whose work Vachaspati Misra has contributed an explanation of Vyasa's commentary.
There is some confusion as to which Patanjali was the author of this book. Some have identified him with a grammarian by the same name, but the grammarian's dates do not match the age of the work as determined by the internal evidence. It is safe to assume that the Sutras were written somewhere between 1,700 and 2,200 years ago, although they may have existed long before that in unwritten form. Tradition has it that Patanjali is the compiler, but not author, of the Yoga Sutras. Before Patanjali wrote them down, they were learnt by memory and passed down from teacher to student through generations.
Nonetheless, Patanjali is a major figure among the great Hindu thinkers by any measure and, though not the father of yoga per se, he is certainly the father of Raja Yoga as its compiler.
Patanjali is also believed to be an incarnation of the serpent Ananta (Skt: endless), well known in Indian mythology as the thousand-headed naga who serves as a couch for Lord Vishnu and is also the guardian of the world's treasures.
Desiring to teach yoga to the world, he is said to have fallen (pat) from heaven into the open palms (anjali) of a woman, hence the name Patanjali.
Philosophical Roots and Influences
The Yoga Sutras by Patanjali are generally attributed by scholars to be written either 200 bce or even later. Scholars such as S.N. Dasgupta, claim this is the same Patanjali who authored the Mahabhasya, a treatise on Sanskrit grammar. Other scholars like Hermann Jacobi believe that there was another Patanjali who has written the work around the 5th c. C.E or later. The Sutras are built on a foundation of Samkhya philosophy and the Bhagavad Gita and its division into its own version of an Eight limbs of Yoga reminiscent of Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path and inclusion of Brahmaviharas (Yoga Sutra 1:33) show Buddhist influence. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali prescribes adherence to eight "limbs" or steps (the sum of which constitute "Ashtanga Yoga", the title of the second chapter) to quiet one's mind and merge with the infinite. These eight limbs not only systematized conventional moral principles espoused by the Bhagavad Gita, but elucidated the practice of Raja Yoga in a more detailed manner.
For their part, the Yoga Sutras form the theoretical and philosophical base of all Raja yoga. It can still today be considered the most organized and complete definition of the Raja Yoga discipline. Moreover, the "eight-limbed" path espoused by Patanjali has formed the foundation for much of Tantra Yoga (a Hindu deific, Shiva-Shakti yoga system) and Vajrayana Buddhism (Buddhist Tantra Yoga) that came after Raja Yoga.
The Yoga Sutras not only provides yoga with a thorough and consistent philosophical basis, but in the process, also clarifies many important esoteric concepts (like karma), common to all traditions of Indian thought.
The Eight Limbs of Raja Yoga
The eight "limbs" or steps are: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. A number of commentators break these eight steps into two categories. Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, and Pratyahara comprise the first category. The second category, called Samyama is comprised of Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. The division between the two categories exists because in latter three mentioned steps there is no cognizance whereas in the first five steps cognizance exists.
Since there is no cognizance to these three stages (ed. Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi), they are not bound by time or succession. The result is that they exist independently and also exist simultaneously. Any one, two or three can exist at the same time. When the three stages exist simultaneously then it is called (ed. Samyamah) the simultaneous existence.
– Taken from the commentary on Patanjali Sutra III.4 by Master E.K.
Patanjali divided his Yoga Sutras into 4 chapters or books (Sanskrit pada), containing in all 195 aphorisms, divided as follows:
Samadhi refers to a blissful state where the yogi is absorbed into the One. The author describes yoga and then the means to attaining samadhi. This chapter contains the most famous verses: "Atha yoga anusasanam" ("Yoga begins with discipline") and "Yogas citta vritti nirodha" ("Yoga is control of citta vrittis" - i.e., thoughts and feelings).
is the Sanskrit word for "practice". Here the author outlines two forms of Yoga: kriya yoga
(action yoga) and ashtanga yoga
(eightfold yoga). Kriya yoga
, sometimes called karma yoga
, is reflected in the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3
, where Arjuna
is encouraged to act without attachment to the results of action. It is the yoga of selfless action or as some have observed, of service. Ashtanga yoga
consists of the following levels:
These are 5 in number
- Ahimsa = abstention from violence = non-violence to all beings
- Satya = abstention from lying = truth
- Asteya = abstention from theft
- Brahmacharya = abstention from sexual activity = continence
- Aparigraha = abstention from possessions
These also are 5 in number:
- Shaucha = purity
- Santosha = contentment
- Tapas = austerities
- Svadhyaya = Self study (loosely translated, it can be taken to mean introspection)
- Ishvarapranidhana = surrender to God
- Asana - Postures of the body. This is also a title applied as; One made gracious by God as in Asana Bodhitharta
- Pranayama - Control of prana ('life force') or vital breath
- Pratyahara - Abstraction; "is that by which the senses do not come into contact with their objects and, as it were, follow the nature of the mind." - Vyasa
- Dharana - Fixing the attention on a single object; concentration
- Dhyana - Meditation
- Samadhi - Super-conscious state
Vibhuti is the Sanskrit word for "power" or "manifestation". This book describes the higher states of awareness and the techniques of yoga to attain them.
- Kaivalya Pada (34 sutras)
Kaivalya literally means "isolation", but like most Sanskrit words, used technically, this translation is misleading. In this sense it means emancipation, liberation, used interchangeably with moksha (liberation), which is the goal of Yoga.
Sūtra or Sutta, literally means a rope or thread that holds things together, and more metaphorically refers to an aphorism (or line, rule, formula), or a collection of such aphorisms in the form of a manual. It is derived from the verbal root siv-, meaning to sew (these words, including Latin suere and English to sew, all derive from PIE *syū-). In Hinduism the 'sutras' form a school of Vedic study, related to and somewhat later than the Upanishads. They served and continue to act as grand treatises on various schools of Hindu Philosophy. They elaborate in succinct verse, sometimes esoteric, Hindu views of metaphysics, cosmogony, the human condition, moksha (liberation), and how to maintain a blissful, dharmic life, in a cosmic spin of karma, reincarnation and desire.
In Buddhism, the term "sutra" refers generally to canonical scriptures that are regarded as records of the oral teachings of Gautama Buddha. In Chinese, these are known as (pinyin: jīng). These teachings are assembled in the second part of the Tripitaka which is called Sutra Pitaka. There are also some Buddhist texts, such as the Platform Sutra, that are called sutras despite being attributed to much later authors.
The Pali form of the word, sutta is used exclusively to refer to Buddhist scriptures, particularly those of the Pali Canon.