Book review: Patanjali's Yoga Sutra is a guide to moral perfection

Updated on May 16, 2015 03:38 PM IST

Patanjali's Yoga Sutra is a classical work of philosophy that guides men to become morally perfect.

None | BySudhirendar Sharma

The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali
by David Gordon White
Princeton University Press, UK
Rs 1704, PP172

Yoga, as it is beamed through television channels today, is not what was written by Patanjali in the first centuries of the Common Era. Consisting of fewer than two hundred verses, the Yoga Sutra has virtually nothing to say on the postures and the stretching and breathing exercises that the contemporary yoga gurus have reduced the philosophical text into. In reality, Yoga Sutra is a classical work of moral philosophy, guiding men to become morally perfect in the world.

One of the six Indian philosophical systems, Yoga Sutra is an investigation into the relationship between spirit and matter; an account of workings of the mind and ways of knowing what is true; a study of cause and effect in the workings of the universe; and a guide to salvation. The compact definition of yoga, as Patanjali had postulated, is composed of four words: yoga=citta-vritti-nirodha. A simple translation should read something like: yoga is the stoppage of the turning of thought. Since the workings of the mind are both the source and the potential solution to the problem of suffering, yoga liberates the subject from the distorting effects of the mind-stuff for attaining salvation. Drawing inferences from a dozen classical commentaries on this book, David Gordon White, a professor of Comparative Religions at the University of California reconstructs the rise, fall and rise of this perennial classic in the biography of The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali.

White brings to light the astonishing fact that Patanjali's classic work was not only forgotten in India for hundreds of years but its first discovery in the West was viewed with disdain too. It is believed that the onslaught of Islam in the northern part of the sub-continent, somewhere around the sixteenth century, had led to forging a new religio-philosophical paradigm between the theism of the Puranas and Vedanta philosophy that excluded all non-Vedic traditions including Yoga. Yoga Sutra's glorious days had lasted from the seventh to the eleventh centuries, during which its popularity had stretched from Central Asia to Indonesia. Its subsequent resurrection by the British Orientalist Henry Thomas Colebrooke in 1823 saw its popularity surge in Europe and America, and predominantly in English. Could this be the reason that the yoga of India's past bears little resemblance to the yoga practiced today?

In following the strange and circuitous journey of this timeless classic, from its ancient origins to its modern resurgence, White offers critical views on the manner in which Vedanta-inspired intellectuals of Bengal had mainstreamed Yoga Sutra. Notable amongst them was Swami Vivekananda who not only seized upon Yoga as an ideal platform from which to assert the antiquity and superiority of Indian science over the West, but used its popular demand in the United States to finance the humanitarian work he had planned for India. Vivekananda's appropriation of Patanjali's work set the die for much of what has followed down to the present day. However, none can take away credit from Vivekananda whose work had fashioned yoga as a cultural symbol, in harmony with the religious and intellectual aspirations of educated Indians.

Whether or not authorship to this classic could be attributed to Patanjali is still being debated among cultural-historians and scholars, the dramatic revival of Yoga Sutra after a long hiatus remains somewhat of an enigma. With the classic having been translated in as many as 46 languages, its readership is no longer restricted to an intellectual elite. However, the sub-culture of 'yoga practice' has made it reach even further. White's exhaustive research presents authentic treatise on the remarkable journey of this classic till now, without drawing any roadmap on its future. While scholars will continue on grinding the Yoga Sutra, a mass-based sub-culture of yoga practice is providing solace and inspiration to millions.

Based on fascinating historical documentation, Prof David Gordon White provides insights on the profound philosophy of Yoga Sutra, which is as important to comprehend as getting the breathing exercises right. To that end, White helps to bridge the theory-practice divide.

Sudhirendar Sharma is a development journalist

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