The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali was the most translated ancient Indian text in the medieval era, having been translated into about forty Indian languages and two non-Indian languages: Old Javanese and Arabic. The text fell into obscurity for nearly 700 years from the 12th to 19th century, and made a comeback in late 19th century due to the efforts of Swami Vivekananda. It gained prominence again as a comeback classic in the 20th century.
Before the 20th century, history indicates the Indian yoga scene was dominated by the Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Vasistha, texts attributed to Yajnavalkya and Hiranyagarbha, as well as literature on hatha yoga, tantric yoga and pashupata yoga rather than the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. In the 20th century the corporate Yoga subculture elevated the Yoga Sutras to a status it never knew previously.
Scholars consider the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali formulations as one of the foundations of classical Yoga philosophy of Hinduism.
About the author, Patañjali
The Indian tradition attributes the work to Patañjali. Much confusion has been caused by the late medieval traditions of conflating Patañjali, the author of the grammatical Mahābhāṣya, with the author of the same name who wrote the Yoga Sūtras. Yet the two works in Sanskrit are completely different in language, style and subject matter. Furthermore, before the time of Bhoja (11th century), Sanskrit authors did not conflate the authors, and treated them quite separately. And modern scholarship shows that these two authors are separated in time by about six hundred years. A third Patañjali is sometimes also invented, an author on medicine, in order to fill out the meaning of Bhoja’s verse that said a single Patañjali cured speech through grammar, the mind through yoga, and the body through medicine. However, no major work of medicine by a Patañjali is known to Sanskrit literature.
The Contents of Yoga Sutras
Patañjali divided his Yoga Sutras into four chapters or books (Sanskrit pada), containing in all 196 aphorisms, divided as follows:
Samadhi Pada (51 sutras). Samadhi refers to a blissful state where the yogi is absorbed into the One. Samadhi is the main technique the yogin learns by which to dive into the depths of the mind to achieve Kaivalya. The author describes yoga and then the nature and the means to attaining samādhi. This chapter contains the famous definitional verse: “Yogaś citta-vritti-nirodhaḥ” (“Yoga is the restraint of mental modifications”).
Sadhana Pada (55 sutras). Sadhana is the Sanskrit word for “practice” or “discipline”. Here the author outlines two forms of Yoga: Kriya Yoga (Action Yoga) and Ashtanga Yoga (Eightfold or Eightlimbed Yoga).
Kriya Yoga is closely related to Karma Yoga, which is also expounded in Chapter 3 of the Bhagavad Gita, where Arjuna is encouraged by Krishna to act without attachment to the results or fruit of action and activity. It is the yoga of selfless action and service.
Ashtanga Yoga describes the eight limbs that together constitute Rāja Yoga.
Vibhuti Pada (56 sutras). Vibhuti is the Sanskrit word for “power” or “manifestation”. ‘Supra-normal powers’ (Sanskrit: siddhi) are acquired by the practice of yoga. Combined simultaneous practice of Dhāraṇā, Dhyana and Samādhi is referred to as Samyama, and is considered a tool of achieving various perfections, or Siddhis. The temptation of these powers should be avoided and the attention should be fixed only on liberation. The purpose of using samadhi is not to gain siddhis but to achieve Kaivalya. Siddhis are but distractions from Kaivalaya and are to be discouraged. Siddhis are but maya, or illusion.
Kaivalya Pada (34 sutras). Kaivalya literally means “isolation”, but as used in the Sutras stands for emancipation, liberation and used interchangeably with moksha (liberation), which is the goal of yoga. The Kaivalya Pada describes the process of liberation and the reality of the transcendental ego.
Eight Limbs, or Components of Yoga
Patanjali begins his treatise by stating the purpose of his book in the first sutra, followed by defining the word “yoga” in his second sutra of Book 1:
योग: चित्त-वृत्ति निरोध:
yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ — Yoga Sutras 1.2
This terse definition hinges on the meaning of three Sanskrit terms. I. K. Taimni translates it as “Yoga is the inhibition (nirodhaḥ) of the modifications (vṛtti) of the mind (citta)”. Swami Vivekananda translates the sutra as “Yoga is restraining the mind-stuff (Citta) from taking various forms (Vrittis).” Edwin Bryant explains that, to Patanjali, “Yoga essentially consists of meditative practices culminating in attaining a state of consciousness free from all modes of active or discursive thought, and of eventually attaining a state where consciousness is unaware of any object external to itself, that is, is only aware of its own nature as consciousness unmixed with any other object.”
Yamas and Niyamas
Yamas are ethical rules in Hinduism and can be thought of as moral imperatives. The five yamas listed by Patañjali in Yogasūtra 2.30 are:
- Ahiṃsā (अहिंसा): Nonviolence, non-harming other living beings
- Satya (सत्य): truthfulness, non-falsehood
- Asteya (अस्तेय): non-stealing
- Brahmacārya (ब्रह्मचर्य): chastity, marital fidelity or sexual restraint
- Aparigraha (अपरिग्रहः): non-avarice, non-possessiveness
The second component of Patanjali’s Yoga path is called Niyama, which includes virtuous habits, behaviors and observances (the “dos”). Sadhana Pada Verse 32 lists the niyamas as:
- Śauca: purity, clearness of mind, speech and body
- Santoṣa: contentment, acceptance of others, acceptance of one’s circumstances as they are in order to get past or change them, optimism for self
- Tapas: persistence, perseverance, austerity
- Svādhyāya: study of Vedas (see Sabda in epistemology section), study of self, self-reflection, introspection of self’s thoughts, speeches and actions
- Īśvarapraṇidhāna: contemplation of the Ishvara (God/Supreme Being, Brahman, True Self, Unchanging Reality)
Patanjali, in Book 2, explains how and why each of the above self restraints help in the personal growth of an individual. For example, in verse II.35, Patanjali states that the virtue of nonviolence and non-injury to others (Ahimsa) leads to the abandonment of enmity, a state that leads the yogi to the perfection of inner and outer amity with everyone, everything.