Tag Archives: yoga history

What to Make of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali? Part I


Carol Horton is surely one of the most incisive and compelling voices on the Internet on topics surrounding yoga and society. I was very happy to discover her blog shortly after it was launched: the blog and its associated Facebook page are a valuable resource for contemporary Western yoga practitioners.

This post is inspired by Horton’s recent blog essay: Reading the Yoga Sutra: Can We Cross the Scholar/Practitioner Divide? The essay takes the form of a review of two books on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra — one by the contemporary Western scholar David Gordon White and the other by the practitioner/teacher Rajmani Tigunait of the Himalayan Institute. Here I intend to focus entirely on Horton’s analysis of White’s book: The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography (2014, Princeton University Press).

The questions Horton’s review raises — about how a person might incorporate, into a living engagement with a spiritual tradition, the results of historical/critical scholarship concerning that tradition — are pertinent ones for Ashtangis.  After all, many of us are quite educated and in touch with the world of scholarship; consequently we harbor a certain attachment to having “correct” views.  On the other hand, the deliverances of the scholars often don’t accord at all well with the narratives about the tradition that our teachers put forward.

I would like to take up these questions myself in subsequent posts. For the present I aim simply to get some clarity on the claims in White’s book that may, upon reflection, disturb Ashtanga practitioners, and to counter some of Horton’s objections to these claims. In a subsequent post I would like to focus on where I think Horton gets it right, and to push a bit further along some of the lines of her thought.

White’s Central Claims

Many indeed are the translations, commentaries and interpretations of the Yoga Sutra, and White’s book does not attempt to add to their number.  Instead, White deals with the history of the interpretation of the Yoga Sutra:

  • in classical Indian times (mostly through traditional Sanskrit commentaries);
  • in the pre-modern Muslim world;
  • at the hands of Western critical scholars since the scholars’ “rediscovery” of the YS in the early 19th century;
  • at the hands of modern spiritual practitioners, both Indian and Western,  in modern times (late 19th century through the present).  (Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya gets a chapter all to himself — yippee!)

White’s primary contention is stated in the Preface:

Over the past forty years or so, a theory has been forged in university departments of history and cultural studies that much of what is thought to be ancient in India was actually invented  — or at best reinvented or recovered from oblivion — during the time of the British Raj.  This of course runs counter to the view most Indians, Indophiles, and renaissance hipsters share that India’s ancient traditions are ageless verities unchanged since their emergence from the ancient mists of time.  When I began this project, I was of the opinion that “classical yoga” — that is, the Yoga philosophy of the Yoga Sutra .. was in fact a tradition extending back though an unbroken line of gurus and disciples, commentators and copyists, to Patanjali himself, the author of the work who lived in the first centuries of the Common Era.  However, the data I have sifted over the past three years have forced me to conclude that this was not the case.

Thus White situates himself within the (fairly recent) tradition of “reinvention” scholarship, which aims to show much of what was thought to be traditional is in fact of quite recent origin.  (A secondary contention of the book, I think, is this: that in pre-modern times the various schools of yoga practice had associated themselves with other texts, leaving the Yoga Sutra to scholars and philosophers, so that the tendency of certain modern yoga schools — to accord to the study of the Yoga Sutra a central role in deepening one’s practice — should be seen as something rather new in yoga.)

Horton’s understanding of White’s primary claim is quite similar. In her post she says:

By my reading …the main point [of Whites’ book] is to prove that the understanding of the YS as a timeless guide to yoga philosophy and practice that’s widely taken-for-granted among practitioners today is factually wrong. The most important reasons [White gives] for this include:

  • Philosophical inconsistency. White emphasizes that Patanjali’s original understanding of yogic philosophy was eclipsed by very different, Vedanta-based interpretations by at least the 16th century. “In a complete reversal of Patanjali’s and Vyasa’s original position,” he explains, “the Ishvara of the Yoga Sutra had come to be equated with the Krishna of the Bhagavad Gita” (49-50).
  • Historical discontinuity. Although the YS “enjoyed the status of a classic” in India during the 7th-12th centuries, it subsequently fell into obscurity (235). Ironically, this only changed when it was “rediscovered” by British Orientalists in the early 1800s. Subsequently, the YS was widely popularized by Vivekananda – who, in turn, further “severed it from its original cultural and historical context” – beginning in the late 19th century (16, 124).

Horton’s Objections, My Response

Horton finds fault with each of White’s two major reasons for his primary claim: she says: ” … the vast array of historical data White presents doesn’t consistently fit his key claims of philosophical inconsistency and historical discontinuity.” On the matter of philosophical discontinuity, she has this to say:

… White claims that the Vedantic reading of the YS “completely reversed” Patanjali’s original understanding of Ishvara (50). Later, however, White writes that if “Patanjali was a practitioner of Yoga and a devotee of a personal god like Krishna, he may well have been thinking of ‘devotional to God’ [sic] when he employed the term ishvara-pranidhana” (180). Finally, he concludes that “it is unlikely that there will ever be a final word on what Patanjali meant by ishvara-pranidhana” (181).

Needless to say, this is a major problem given that much of the earlier part of the book were devoted to demonstrating that “virtually every modern-day yoga guru beginning with Swami Vivekananda” has “fundamentally misconstrued…the heart of Patanjali’s system.” Again, how did they “fundamentally misconstrue” it? By interpreting Ishvara as “the universal Self of Vedanta,” as opposed “an object of meditation” in service of “the ultimate goal of the isolation of the individual person from universal Matter” in line with the original philosophies of Yoga and Samkhya (47-48). White’s argument undercuts itself: It’s a logical contradiction to state that we can’t know whether Patanjali was “a devotee of a personal God” and that “virtually every modern-day yoga guru…fundamentally misconstrued” his understanding of Ishvara. Both statements can’t be true at the same time. Yet, they are presented as such without qualification or commentary.

I can’t agree, here. White’s argument for philosophical inconsistency over time in YS interpretations is initiated in Chapter Two (Patanjali, the Yoga Sutra and Indian Philosophy) and continued in later chapters (especially the chapters on the Theosophists and on Vivekananda); a focused discussion of the nature of Ishvara is offered in Chapter 10 (Ishvara). A reconsideration of these chapters will suffice to dispel Horton’s objection.

In the Ishavara Chapter White considers several suggestions as to what the term “Ishvara” might have meant to Patanjali — might Ishvara have been some primordial Master of Yoga, or Krishna the Lord of the Bhagavad Gita or some other personal deity? — and concludes that we are not in a position to decide between these suggestions. White is indeed uncertain as to what Ishvara — and, by extension, the term īśvarapraṇidhāna — meant to Patanjali. On the other hand, White has a much higher degree of certainty regarding the nature and purpose of yoga according to Patanjali (or at least , according to Patanjali as understood by Vyasa, the earliest commentator). For Patanjali as a Samkhya dualist, neither the purpose of yoga practice nor the state of yoga could not have been union with Ishvara. The notion of yoga as union with God arises instead from Vedantic schools of philosophy and religious practice, not from Patanjali’s system.

A fair portion of White’s book is devoted to tracing the gradual incorporation of Vedantic conceptions of Yoga into interpretations of the Yoga Sutra. The elements of this incorporation are, very roughly, as follows:

  • Still working within the classical commentarial tradition but now very much under the influence of Vedantic/Puranic traditions, Vijnanabhikshu (16th century) re-interprets the Ishvara as “God, the supreme Self and the creator of all, transcending all”, and in fact as a “twenty-sixth principle, higher even than the multiple Purushas identified as the twenty-fifth and highest principle in classical Samkhya. This assertion … is nowhere present in earlier Yoga Sutra commentary”.
  • Late-classical authors increasingly understand Yoga philosophy in Vedantic terms, no longer taking serious account of Patanjali’s system. As early as the 14th century Vidyaranya, for example, understands Raja Yoga as the “Yoga of Vedanta”, whereas Patanjali’s eight-fold yoga is classified by him as Hatha Yoga. Swatmaraman (15th century) identifies samādhi as the final goal of Patanjali’s eight-fold path, but understands it as the union of the individual with a universal soul. (See Chapter 6, p. 100.)
  • Modern authors such as the Theosophists and Swami Vivekananda seek to re-classify Pantanjali’s system as Raja Yoga (Hatha Yoga having fallen by this time into general disrepute). But when the late-classical “Raja = Vedanta” equation is combined with the new “YS = Raja” equation, the equation “YS = Vedanta” immediately follows, and so Vedantic conceptions of Yoga end up being imposed wholesale on Patanjali’s system (see Chapters 6 and 7), without supporting evidence from the text of the Yoga Sutra.

That’s the “philosophical discontinuity” (to use Horton’s term) for which White argues. Uncertainties over the nature of Ishvara or of iśvarapraṇidhāna don’t really enter into the matter.

Horton also disputes the claim of “historical discontinuity”:

There are similar problems with White’s claim of historical discontinuity. As noted above, White reports that the YS only “enjoyed the status of a classic” during the 7th-12th centuries (235). Earlier, however, he states that its “glory days” lasted up through the 16th century (44). Sixty pages after that, he qualifies this statement by adding that “yoga philosophy had been effectively dropped from the traditional north Indian brahmanic curriculum by no later than the 16th century” (100, emphasis added). Ten pages later, he notes that “there was a Yoga revival” in northwest India during the 17th-18th centuries (111). Yet, the second to last page of the book emphasizes that the YS “improbably, miraculously” recovered “the status of a classic” after “a hiatus of nearly a millennium”! (235). Again, while this claim doesn’t logically correspond to White’s own data, it’s nonetheless stated boldly, without additional clarification.

Here again I believe the objection fails, this time due to a pair of (uncharacteristically careless) mis-readings on Horton’s part:

  • The full text of White’s p. 44 statement about “glory days” is as follows: “The centuries separating Vacaspati Mishra and Bhoja were the Yoga Sutra‘s glory days. This was the period during which Patanjali’s work was most widely quoted and enjoyed its greatest prestige, from Kashmir to Indonesia to Central Asia. But by the sixteenth century, the time of Vijnanabhikshu, the Yoga Sutra‘s last great commentator, things had changed.” Clearly there is no assertion here that the glory days of the YS lasted up through the 16th century: King Bhoja’s commentary on the YS was composed in the 11th century. As a result, White’s later statement that “yoga philosophy had been dropped from the traditional north Indian brahmanic curriculum by no later than the 16th century” is in no sense a “qualification” of his earlier assertion.
  • There was indeed a “Yoga [philosophy] revival” during the 17th and 18th centuries, but it was in South India, not in the the northwest. Horton’s confusion on this point may stem from a mis-reading of the following sentence (Chapter 6, p.97): “While there is no record of any association between these monastic institutions and the propagation of the Yoga Sutra in Rajputana, in India’s northwest, there was a Yoga revival in these mileaus in Tamil Nadu, in south India, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.” A Yoga revival occurring far to the south could easily have gone unnoticed in northern India: such was the case with other quite active, but isolated, southern intellectual movements, such as the remarkable “Kerala School” of mathematics that flourished from 1400-1550 CE but languished in obscurity until its textual rediscovery at the hands of British scholars — in fact, at the hands of the very same Thomas Colebrooke who brought Patanjali’s YS to the attention of the modern West! At any rate, once we are clear on the location of the Yoga revival we see that its existence has no particular bearing on White’s characterization of the YS’s modern re-ascendancy to the status of a classic as “improbable.”

Preliminary Evaluation

I don’t think that White’s work is entirely free of blemish I think that on one or two occasions White doesn’t quite capture the intent of the authors he quotes. However, in the few cases where I have had the original source at hand and have been able to examine it at length, I get the impression that White is doing the best he can, under the severe constraint of producing a book of moderate length, to summarize the often-quite-involved discussion to which he refers. I have not yet come across any major structural problems of the sort that Carol Horton raises.

Accordingly I think that contemporary Yoga practitioners, especially in contemporary Yoga Schools that accord a central role to the Yoga Sutra, have somewhat more reason than Horton would suppose to consider seriously the implications of White’s research. In a subsequent post I hope to explore these implications a bit.