Who was Patanjali?

The Yogasutra (also known as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali) is considered a seminal text for modern yoga teachers. Arguably, it is also the most commonly referenced text in yoga teacher training programs. Aside from its popularity among modern yogis, the Yogasutra is also one of the most translated Sanskrit texts and has been the subject of a huge amount of scholarship. Interestingly, what is covered in yoga trainings, and what is written in scholarship, sometimes don’t quite agree. Let’s take a look at the teachings, with regard to the signed author of the Yogasutra Patanjali, from both of these perspectives.

When I was studying yoga teaching, I was taught that Patanjali was a recorder of a previously oral tradition of yoga, passed down from guru to student throughout the ages. Patanjali was regarded as a great sage who was divinely ordained with the task of recording the earliest complete manual of yoga and transformation for posterity. We were taught that his name could be translated, from the Sanskrit, as patat (‘falling’) and anjali (joined hands). We also learnt to salute Patanjali with a mantra:

yogena cittasya padena vācāṃ

malaṃ śarīrasya ca daiyakena

yo’ pākarot taṃ pravaraṃ munīnāṃ

patañjaliṃ prāñjalir anato ‘smi

 

I pay homage to the foremost sage Patañjali

who removed the impurities of the mind by yoga,

of speech by grammar,

and of the body by medicine.

According to scholars, the Yogasutra has most recently been dated to the 4th century CE. Some scholars subscribe to the idea that the content described within the Yogasutra was initially passed through oral transmission, while others do not. In fact, theories on the content, history, and authorship of this highly influential text could (and have) fill a book or two. Despite this incredible amount of research, very little is known about the text’s author Patanjali. Even so, the Sanskrit verse I’ve included above, which was taught to me by my yoga teachers, provides some interesting clues as to how Patanjali has come to be seen within the Hindu tradition and subsequently modern yoga.

There is no other written reference to the author of the Yogasutra, other than in the text itself. However, from about the tenth century, the Hindu tradition has associated the author (or compiler, as the case may be) of the Yogasutra with two other Patanjalis. The first was a celebrated Sanskrit grammarian who wrote the Mahabhasya and the second was the author of a book on ayurveda, the Carakapratissamskrta.

To confuse matters even more, within the ancient sacred text of the Chidambaram (“home of the dancing Shiva”) temple, in Tamil Nadu, Patanjali is recorded as an incarnation of Vishnu’s snake Shesha. His character in the narrative is associated, in addition to yoga, grammar, and medicine, with ritual practice. This text describes a tale of Patanjali falling from heaven into the palms of the Brahmin women Gonika, who had prayed to the Sun God for a son. As an incarnation of Shesha (also known as Ananta or Adishesha), he is described as taking the form of a five headed serpent.

Over the course of time, the name Patanjali began to function more like a pseudonym, a name that carried fame and authority. Eventually the identities of all of these Patanjalis became fused. Patanjali became known as the purifier of mind, speech, and body through the unification of grammar, yoga, and medicine. Additionally, the Hindu tradition often understands these three aspects as three incarnations of the divine snake Ananta or Shesha.

Modern scholarship, on the other hand, would generally consider each of these Patanjalis as different persons. The main clue cited by academics is the vast expanse of time between the texts and iconography associated with Patanjali. Patanjali the grammarian is thought to have lived in the 2nd century BCE, while Patanjali the author of the Yogasutra would have lived five hundred years later (4th century CE). Finally, the connection between the Patanjali featured in the sacred text of the Chidambaram temple and the Patanjali of the Yogasutra probably wasn’t made until the 17th century CE. To scholars, these dates just simply don’t add up.

It seems that modern yoga has adopted the perspective of the more recent commentaries and translations of the Yogasutra, which by the time they have been accessed, already featured the ‘fused, three-fold, serpent Patanjali’. There are certainly many rich ideas to be learnt from the Hindu traditions. These wonderful narratives and iconographies can act as powerful conduits of wisdom. To the bhakti oriented yogi, this may indeed be the preferred way to understand Patanjali and the Yogasutra.

But to me, the stories of how ideas were shared, transformed, and reinterpreted that are offered by modern scholarship are just as fascinating. It is my belief that by looking into, and appreciating, both of these ways of understanding Patanjali, we support and utilise a diverse representation of ideas. This in turn fosters flexible thinking, and the ability to hold different, and sometimes conflicting, ideas and ways of knowing in the mind, and heart, at once.

 

If you’ve found this little exploration intriguing and you’d like to hear more, join me for Exploring Yoga, beginning March this year.

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