Namaste, and welcome to this study of the Yoga-sūtras of Patañjali.
The purpose of the Yoga-sūtra is self-realization, which is actually the goal of life but we live in a very difficult time. The modern consumer economic system, being founded on radical materialism, is based on the fallacy that I am this body which I am currently wearing, and the mind which I am utilizing. This materialistic theory promotes then, the idea that happiness can be achieved through material or sensual experience, promoting a complete engrossment in sensual stimulation and gratification.
The yoga system and the teachings of yoga are completely contrary to this point of view, so it’s very important from the onset for us to be able to understand that in beginning this journey of yoga, we may be carrying with us a great deal of baggage associated with long-held preconceived ideas and entrenched patterns of behavior. The reality is that the path of materialism never actually ends well, whereas the path of yoga offers an opportunity for full spiritual enlightenment and great spiritual happiness.
So the Yoga-sūtras are meant for this higher purpose – to actually experience the goal of human existence that is self-realization. And it is from this perspective, that I will be endeavoring to share my understandings and personal realizations in relation to this very well-known yoga text. Our attempt to read and study this work is not from an academic perspective, but from a practitioner’s point of view.
The Yoga-sūtra is actually a very ancient work dated by modern historians to have originated between 1700 and 2500 years ago. They use historical methodologies, looking for correlations in language and terms of usage, or by cross-referencing other works from what would be considered the same historical period to try and ascertain the establishment of when the Yoga-sūtra was first possibly written. But there are many academics that will also say that it is almost impossible to trace out when it was originally written by Patañjali. In the lineage to which I belong, it is understood to be a far more ancient text than this.
The word sūtra refers to a style of written presentation that was meant to be extremely brief, and as pithy as possible. They had a saying that the writers of sutras would even be willing to forego having a child if they could just clip one syllable from a sūtra. So the focus was to condense it a great deal. It is rare to see a verb in most sūtras. The word sūtra itself literally means ‘a thread’. It’s as if you have these leaves, as it were, of just standalone words all threaded together to form this garland; this genre or category of literature or writing.
The Yoga-sūtra is not actually a how-to manual, because it lacks that degree of specificity and detail regarding how to develop and execute an authentic spiritual practice, and this points to how sūtras were commonly used. A standalone sūtra could be likened to a bullet point – part of a long list of bullet points, but a student unfamiliar with the subject may not come to a very developed or mature understanding without a teacher who can decipher and explain their meanings.
So this brings into focus the reality of how things were transmitted or taught in ancient times – through the relationship of guru and śiṣya. The spiritual teacher, who was not just intellectually able to understand a subject, but had ideally realized and experienced the reality of what they were speaking of, would then teach a student, and give them more detailed explanations of how things could be practiced; how things could or should be understood. And the fact that things were presented in a very compressed form in a sūtra, resulted in the maximum amount of meaning in a minimum number of words. As such, it was easier to memorize and to be able to recite, and as one remembered or recited the sūtras they would be able to recollect the teachings – the way in which the individual śloka or sūtra was expanded upon by their teachers.
So because of that, all sūtras required commentary to be understood, and attempting to read sūtra without commentary was considered a very unwise undertaking. In this study, I frequently refer to the oldest-known commentary of the Yoga-sūtra – the commentary of Vyāsa. It is accepted by almost all academics that this Vyasa was not the same as Veda Vyāsa, or Vyāsadevā – the compiler of the Vedas. However, this may or may not be the case, and there is no way to verify this.
In presenting the texts, my translation of them is not going to be a literal translation of the words contained in the Sūtra, because that would often be unintelligible for most people, particularly if not intimately schooled in the yoga philosophy, and some of the precepts and ideas that were taught since ancient Vedic times. Therefore I will fold into the translation some elements from the commentary that will hopefully impart a deeper meaning and understanding for those who are studying this commentary. In translating and commenting on this work, I have strictly tried to avoid any speculative interpretation. I have not really deviated from the teachings of our lineage, and the teachings that have been passed down for hundreds and thousands of years on the subject matter.
Another challenge in translating the Yoga-sūtras is that in English there are often no equivalent words to some of the Sanskrit terms, resulting in the problem of how to present a term to make it so that it is understandable for a more Western audience. Also, in these texts, there are often many references to concepts or spiritual ideas without any equivalent in the Western world, and this becomes a little bit challenging for a person who is beginning an in-depth study of the yoga science. For example, in English, we have this word ‘ego’, which was popularized by Freud as a psychological term and was proposed by him to be one of the three constructs of his structural model of the psyche, although in the original Greek it referred to the actual ‘self’.
The ancient yogic understanding is that I am an eternal spiritual entity or being, and I am encased in two coverings. One of those coverings contains a sheath called the ahaṅkāra or the false ego – the false concepts of who we are. For instance, if looking in a mirror, I see this body and conclude, “Oh well I’m an older white male”, that is a false understanding of who I actually am. I am an eternal spiritual being, and that is not something that is perceivable with the physical eye. It requires actual spiritual vision to see. So while we may sometimes use the word ‘ego’ in this book, we will also be using the word ‘false ego’ – ego meaning the true self, and the false ego meaning the false conceptions of who we are.
Another reference is the word ‘soul’ – which I really don’t like using, but I sometimes may use, simply because it is a word that is deeply misunderstood when used in the framework of, for instance, Christianity and most Western-type thinking. And the reason that it is difficult is that few can actually speak on the subject of the soul with any proficiency. For instance, people declare that “I have a soul” or say “my soul”, and of course that opens up the question, “If you have a soul, what exactly is the soul, and who specifically are you – the actual possessor of the soul?” So, if you follow that line of questioning, it makes it very clear that most people’s concept of the word ‘soul’ is a very vague one. The Sanskrit terminology that is used for the equivalent, is the ātmā. This word ātmā literally means ‘the self’.
In the writing of the Sūtra, Patañjali is also speaking to a very knowledgeable audience. The foundational Vedic wisdom underpinning what he is presenting played a significant if not dominant role in the lives of the educated and common people alike in ancient India. An example of how he is speaking to a knowledgeable audience is his choice of some of the terminology, which is actually quite deep and may become a little bit complex for some people, so I will try and present these complex ideas as simply as possible.
An example of the fact that Patañjali was speaking to a knowledgeable audience can be found in how he speaks about the eight principle yoga siddhis or mystical powers. He names the first one followed by the equivalent of ‘etc.’ So the fact that he sometimes speaks of lists, or of five particular things without naming what they are, are clear indications that he is addressing people already well-founded in this knowledge.
What are some of these foundational truths that underpin the teachings of yoga, and what was it that Patañjali was presenting? Well, I have already referenced one of the important ones to understand, which is that you and I are pure, eternal spiritual beings possessed of transcendental consciousness. This body that I am currently occupying, and the mind which I am using, are not me – they are coverings. So the individual entity is described by Patañjali as either puruṣa or dṛṣṭā, which means ‘the seer’. The coverings were called the sthūla-śarīra and the liṇga-śarīra. The subtle body or subtle covering was comprised of the ahaṅkāra – the false identity or false concepts of who we are, the intelligence or buddhi, and the mind.
We will be addressing these kinds of things in more detail as we go forward, but a couple of other frequently used terms I’ll just mention here are: prakrti – referring to the manifestation as we see and experience it, and known as material nature, and secondly, the three guṇas or modes of material nature – the three qualities of material nature which pervade the entire material energy, and cause living beings to become drawn to and engage in different types of activity, producing different types of outcomes. But this is something that needs to be spoken of in some detail.
One issue I want to warn people about is that we have a situation in the Western world now where people like to speak about “My understanding” or “My interpretation” and “The way I see things”, this sense of a very strong and independent way of thinking, or interpreting. In the Vedic system, when people sought spiritual knowledge, they approached the process of learning from a platform of tremendous humility, and there was this recognition that regardless of what I think I understand, I am confronted with serious limitations; that there is a limitation of the mind, and the way in which we become conditioned by different filters – social and cultural norms, where we’re often not really trained in actual discernment, or what was called viveka. Also, the role of the false ego – the ahaṅkāra – this most subtle covering of the living being, is to filter or alter our original spiritual consciousness and perception of things, and to make it so that we live what is fundamentally an illusion. This may be a startling idea to many and will be properly addressed and explained within this work.
The other reality confronting us is that there are four defects inherent in all mundane personalities. There are Sanskrit terms for all of these, and the first is bhrama – the tendency to commit mistakes – we must all honestly admit that we do have this tendency. The second is pramāda – the propensity to be illusioned. It is possible for me to be deeply or highly illusioned about any one of a number of things. Magicians these days are known as illusionists, creating these illusions where you think you are seeing one thing, but actually something else entirely different is happening. The third defect is known as the tendency to cheat – vipralipsā, this unfortunate tendency that we have to cheat ourselves and others, knowingly or unknowingly, or in a conscious or an unconscious way. The fourth defect, karaṇāpāṭava, is that our senses are by nature limited and imperfect, so even if you use very advanced technologies to enhance their capability, there is this underlying truth attached to the senses, or the sense organs themselves.
So when we consider these four defects we are constantly subjected to, and the fact that I’m existing in this somewhat illusioned state – the idea that I am the material body, and the way in which I and everybody else relates to the world this way, we come to understand the significant degree to which we are covered by things, demonstrates why there is a need to seek out someone who is not affected or influenced by these things, and how we should approach such an individual to help us come to see the truth or the reality of things.
Due to these facts, the spiritual journey was a journey of immense humility, and it really involved approaching those figures that are truly authoritative, in the most profound sense. In the Vedic culture, the three great authorities were considered: guru – a self-realized spiritual teacher; śastra – those spiritual teachings/writings that were considered beyond defect; and previous saints, sadhus or rishis. This looking to authority was considered a really important part of the spiritual journey.
So to summarize, there are two things: one is agama – the text or textual authorities, which Patañjali will speak about, and the other is the relationship between guru and śiṣya, – spiritual teacher and disciple. As one proceeds on the spiritual path, we are endeavoring to see things in truth; to see things differently than we currently see them. This change in the way of seeing things was a change in vision, and the gradual development of this spiritual vision was actually considered to be a gift.
Although not trained in the chanting of Sanskrit, I have nonetheless chanted the verses of Patañjali, which though possibly filled with defects from a technical perspective, I have done in order that they may be of help to some of the people studying this Yoga-sūtra.
Before undertaking this study I would like to offer my profound and humble pranāms to my gurus, to our lineage, and to the Supreme.
cakṣur unmīlitaṁ yena
tasmai śrī-gurave namaḥ
sthāpitaṁ yena bhū-tale
svayaṁ rūpaḥ kadā mahyaṁ
Auṁ namo bhagavate vāsudevāya