Yoga Sutras Context

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, we explore the historical context around the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Objective

Gain a basic understanding of the historical context of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and build a foundation for deeper exploration of the teachings.

Description

Learn about the authorship of the Yoga Sutras and the meaning and use of the sutra style. Consider why Sanskrit is well-suited for communicating these teachings and an issue related to translating the text into English. Examine the branch of yoga from which the Yoga Sutras arise and how the teachings compare to Buddhist philosophy.

Vocabulary

  1. Patanjali — Codifier of The Yoga Sutras
  2. Sanskrit — A sacred language designed to convey subtlety and communicate spiritual insights
  3. Sutra — Summaries of teachings

About Patanjali

  • Patanjali, who lived “somewhere around 250 BCE” codified (arranged in a systematic collection) The Yoga Sutras.
  • Yoga existed long before Patanjali. It was referred to in The Vedas, estimated to have been written between 3,000 and 6,000 years ago.
  • Kofi Busia says, “Almost everything about Patanjali is unknown. Even his most basic biographical details are disputed.” Others claim that Patanjali was a revered yogi and scholar of many subjects.
  • Yogiraj Alan Finger writes that Patanjali seems to have been “a practicing yogi writing for his contemporary community of yoga practitioners and students” and not “for intellectual dabblers or the general public.”

Why the Dates are Unknown

The dates proposed for Patañjali’s birth and life vary by a millennium… A part of the reason for this wide divergence in possible dates is the tradition, common at the time… In order to make their contributions more acceptable, and to give them some cachet and an air of authority, later thinkers were frequently content to concede authorship of their contributions to one or another of their more illustrious predecessors. Those predecessors thus acquired an exaggerated longevity… Given that the knowledge in Patañjali’s most widely recognized work, the Yoga Sutras, is presented through a series of terse aphorisms, a date for him of somewhere between the fourth and second centuries BCE becomes highly likely… Give or take a century, therefore, somewhere around 250 BCE seems the best bet. – Kofi Busia

Patanjali’s Role

Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, lived somewhere between 500 BCE and 200 CE, a time that possibly overlaps the life of Buddha and a period of intense philosophical activity in India. Patanjali was revered as an outstanding scholar and wise man who wrote significant commentaries on Sanskrit grammar and Ayurveda… The Patanjali yoga tradition is a later expression of older teachings based on the source texts of India known as the Vedas. – Nicolai Bachman

A Yogi Writing for His Contemporaries, Not for General Public

Not much is known of Patanjali… There are many differing options about who he was and when exactly he lived… Whatever the truth of the matter, it seems evident to us that Patanjali was a practicing yogi writing for his contemporary community of yoga practitioners and students. The Sutras do not impart philosophy in a vacuum, nor are they intended for intellectual dabblers or the general public. – Alan Finger & Wendy Newton

Patanjali, the Man

Master Patanjali was a great yogi; he knew the physical poses of yoga and the art of breathing: yoga of the body. He was also a great thinker and meditator—a master of the yoga of the mind. He wrote as well famous books on medicine and on Sanskrit, the ancient tongue from which almost all our languages come. He is recognized, too, as the father of the classical dance of India. – Roach, Geshe Michael & Christie McNally

Patanjali’s Approach

Sri Patanjali was the epitome of acceptance of all methods and of broad-mindedness of approach. He did not limit his instructions to one particular technique, to members of any particular religion, philosophy, or in any other way. He gave general principles and used specifics only as examples. – Sri Swami Satchidananda

The Sutra Style

  • Historically, spiritual teachings were delivered verbally. Students memorized the teachings.
  • When the teachings were eventually written down, there were no printing presses. Thus, they were condensed into the brief sutra form for the purposes of memorization and recall.
  • The word “sutra” means thread, as in a thread that strings beads together.
  • Sutras are summaries (of the “utmost condensation”) of teachings.
  • The sutras serve as reminders for a teacher to expand upon.

Lots of Sutras

For millennia the teachings on transformation and awakening were taught face-to-face… Here are some of the famous sutras: The Yoga Sutras, The Kama Sutras, The Shiva Sutras . . . There are lots and lots of sutras. But, what is a sutra? Click here to enjoy a short video. – Eric Klein

The Finest Example

Patañjali’s work is widely regarded as the finest example extant of the sutra method of presentation. – Kofi Busia 

Inspiration for the Teacher

Sutras are not intended to be instruction for the student, but inspiration for the teacher. – Leslie Kaminoff

Discovering the Hidden “Thread”

The most important characteristics of this method are utmost condensation consistent with clear exposition of all essential aspects and continuity of the underlying theme in spite of the apparent discontinuity of the ideas presented. The latter characteristic is worth noting because the effort to discover the hidden “thread” of reasoning beneath the apparently unconnected ideas very often provides the clue to the meaning of many Sutras. It should be remembered that this method of exposition was prevalent at a time when printing was unknown and most of the important treatises had to be memorized by the student. Hence the necessity of condensation to the utmost limit. Nothing essential was, of course, left out but everything with which the student was expected to be familiar or which he could easily infer from the context was ruthlessly cut out. – I. K. Taimni

Brevity & Clarity

The text is a masterpiece of brevity and clarity. Patanjali has removed all unnecessary words for the following reasons: 1) To allow easy memorization by disciples; remember there were no printing presses at the time. 2) To allow the verses to be the object of inquiry; too many words would confuse. 3) To prevent misquotation and misinterpretation. The verses are sheer poetry combined with sublime scientific precision. – Swami Satyananda Saraswati

They Can Be Related to Our Situation

The Yoga Sutras as they were written allow us to question and interpret them, and relate them to our particular situation and life. – Nischala Joy Devi

Teaching Brings the Sutras to Life

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is the heart of yoga. The heart, hrdaya, is that which does not change and Patanjali gave a permanent definition and form to yoga in his Sutra. The heart without prana, however, is not alive and is without relevance for us. Desikachar explains that the teaching relationship is the prana or life of the Yoga Sutra; it is the teacher who brings the heart into life. The Yoga Sutra is a potent tool for the teacher who is able to make it relevant to the student and thus transmit the transformative power of the heart. – Mark Whitwell

Sanskrit

  • The sutras were written in Sanskrit, a “sacred language” designed to convey subtlety.
  • Sanskrit originated from oral traditions and was developed to communicate spiritual insights. (Nicolai Bachman)
  • Expert Russill Paul explains that Sanskrit includes words for spiritual concepts that are not found in other languages.
  • With such meanings as “refined,” “perfected,” “polished,” and “sanctified,” Sanskrit is regarded as a vibrational and healing language.
  • “Sanskrit… is particularly well suited to this heart-centered approach because it is a vibrational language, one in which words resonate through countless layers of meaning.” (Nischala Joy Devi)
  • Sanskrit words have many layers of meaning. In translating the sutras into English — a language whose strength is precision — many subtleties can be lost.

Designed to Express the Subtle Aspects of Yoga

The aphorisms are written in Sanskrit, a language designed to express the subtle aspects of yoga. – Nicolai Bachman

Many Subtleties May Be Lost in Translation

Sanskrit, the language of the sutras, is particularly well suited to this heart-centered approach because it is a vibrational language, one in which words resonate through countless layers of meaning. When this powerful vibrational language is translated literally into a very logical and straightforward language like English, many of its subtleties may be lost. The strength of the English language lies in precise, concrete explanations. It is less powerful when describing the subtler realms, the unity of the feminine and the masculine, and especially the intuitive realm.  – Nischala Joy Devi

More Context

  • Mark Giubarelli points out that the Yoga Sutras “fell into obscurity” for nearly 700 years and resurfaced due in great part due to the efforts of Swami Vivekananda. This fact reminds us that the history of humans on Earth is saturated in violence and oppression against spiritual seekers. Throughout the planet, indigenous peoples and small communities have been invaded and seen their libraries and temples destroyed, sacred texts and art burned and stolen. Innocent people have been mercilessly tortured and killed for engaging in personal spiritual practices. With such a dark planetary history, we must presume that any ancient texts that survived to the modern era can only be due to extreme sacrifice and that there are people whose names we don’t know who exhibited great courage and fortitude in preserving the spiritual wisdom that they had been gifted. Swami Vivekananda carried forward these honorable efforts further by introducing an ancient text from the East to a Western audience.
  • Often, Raja Yoga (also known as Classical Yoga) is described as the teaching outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. However, there is another perspective that Raja Yoga is bigger than Patanjali Yoga. See Branches of Yoga for more detail.
  • Buddhist philosophy and The Yoga Sutras are considered similar.
  • The Yoga Sutras are not presented as moral imperatives. “The sutras don’t imply that we are ‘bad’ or ‘good’ based upon our behavior, but rather that if we choose certain behavior, we get certain results.” (Judith Lasater)

Resurfaced After 700 Years Thanks to Swami Vivekananda

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali date from the first half of the 1st millennium CE, but only gained prominence in the West in the 20th century. The text fell into obscurity for nearly 700 years from the 12th to 19th century then resurfaced late 19th century due to the efforts of Swami Vivekananda. – Mark Giubarelli

Buddhist Philosophy & Yoga Sutras “Almost Identical”

I was interested to discover that the Yoga Sutras, while organized somewhat differently, are almost identical to the Buddhist philosophy I’d been reading for so many years. – Charlotte Bell 

Resemblance to Buddhist Philosophy

Any person with some knowledge of Buddhism can clearly see close resemblances between the teachings of Buddha and Patanjali, especially in such basic rules as yama and niyama and in the basic philosophical concepts but whether the Yoga Sutras came before or after Buddha is not certain. – Swami Satyananda Saraswati 

Yogic & Buddhist Thinkers Influenced One Another

We find within the text of the Yoga Sutra many, many terms that are uncommon within the yoga tradition, yet which work well when cross-referenced with Buddhism. This… is very interesting because it is a demonstration of how the thinkers within the yogic and Buddhist systems were in contact with and were influencing one another. – Richard Freeman 

Not Moral Imperatives

The Yoga Sutra is not presented in an attempt to control behavior based on moral imperatives. The sutras don’t imply that we are “bad” or “good” based upon our behavior, but rather that if we choose certain behavior, we get certain results. If you steal, for example, not only will you harm others, but you will suffer as well. – Judith Lasater 

Evolutionary Personality Qualities as Opposed to Prescribed Morality

All spiritual and religious traditions encourage people to live ethical lives. Yoga agrees but concedes that living a life in perfect harmony with your environment is difficult from the level of morality — through a prescribed set of should and should-nots. Patanjali describes the yamas as the spontaneously evolutionary behavior of an enlightened being…. We see [niyamas] as the qualities naturally expressed in an evolutionary personality… Again, these qualities do not arise by making a mood of moral self-righteousness, but they emerge as a result of a person living a natural, balanced life. If you recognize that your individuality is intimately woven into the fabric of life — that you are a strand in the web of life — you lose the ability to act in ways that are harmful to yourself or others. You adhere to the rules of social conduct because you are behaving from the level of spontaneous right action… Like ideal social conduct, evolutionary personality qualities derive from your connection to spirit. – Deepak Chopra & David Simon