Friday, April 10, 2009

Patanjali Yoga Sutras 1

I have just begun reading Meditation as Spiritual Culmination by Swami Sarvagatananda. It is a huge book in two volumes, with a total of 1611+XXXII pages in demi 1/4 size, and is an extensive commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the most authentic text on Ashtanga Yoga. The book says nothing about Swami Sarvagatananda, which is in keeping with the ancient Indian tradition in two different ways. It agrees with the timeless Indian tradition that books are authored through people and not by people and the work is greater than the man, or woman. The other is that we do not make biographical sketches of our monks.

The book is a transcription of Swamiji’s lectures/classes given at the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Massachusetts, in Boston. The series of lectures were given between September 1977 and June 1981. As the Preface to the book explains, there were one hundred and thirty two lectures in all and the regular audience consisted of some thirty people who included college professors, students, office workers and retirees. Transcribing these lectures from tapes required boundless commitment and superhuman patience, as anyone who has tried to transcribe even a half hour talk [I did it recently!] would instantly agree. This work was done by George Mraz, Swamiji’s personal attendant, says the Preface. I bow my head before George’s dedication.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is a work that has always fascinated me. I first came across a detailed commentary on it in 1974 – this was Patanjala Yoga Pradeep, a commentary by Swami Omanand Teerth Ji, brought out by Gita Press, Gorakhpur and was in Hindi. It is an excellent commentary from the traditional standpoint, going into the intricacies of Yoga. I did not know Hindi at that time – not really, certainly not enough to read a book, though I had studied the language in High School for three years. The person who had gifted the book to me asked me a year later if I had read it and I said, sorry, no. He was a little annoyed, I believe, and asked if he could have the book back and I gave it to him. I do not think he read it either – he knew even less Hindi than I did. In those days very few Tamilians in Madras/Chennai knew Hindi.

I purchased a copy of my own later on. There is a photograph of Swami Omanand Teerth Ji in the book – he looks very saintly and extremely old – probably in his eighties. He must have been a great scholar – the work is very scholarly, and enriched by his lifelong practices. Among the books Swamiji has used for his commentary are the Vyasabhashya on the Sutras, the Vritti by Bhojadeva, the Tattva Vaisharadi by Vachaspati Mishra and the Vartika by Vijnanabhikshu. There are other books he does not mention by name.

It appears that Omananadji was in the habit of practicing mauna when he was requested to write this commentary. He used to break his silence and then dictate this commentary for an hour every day and others used to write it down. Subsequently before publication, the entire book was read out to him and, with his approval and correction, it was brought out in book form.

Incidentally, I have with me a very old copy of the Bhoja Vritti on the Sutras – an 1880 edition. The Vritti is edited by Jibananda Vidyasagara Bhattacharya. This copy comes from the days when I used to be a collector of old books. A Tamil gentleman had died of old age and his family wanted to donate some of his books to someone who would use them. When I heard about this, I visited their home and picked up some of the books. The Bhoja Vritti of the Yoga Sutras [in Sanskrit, with no translation] is the only one I kept with me though, and others I gave to a library. I do not think I have been fair to the family with regard to this particular book – I cannot say I have really used it, though I still intend to.

Another Hindi commentary on the Yoga Sutras, called Bhavaprakashika, is by Dr Mahaprabhulal Goswami. This is published by Chowkhambha Sanskrit Sansthan and is brief. I found Goswami’s work very close to Bhoja Vritti.

One of the most detailed commentaries on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is by Osho, under the title Yoga: The Alpha and the Omega. It is published in ten volumes and, like Swami Sarvagatananda’s commentary, is a transcription of lectures. The first lecture was given on 25th December 1973 and the last, on 10th May 1976, all in English, which should make these among Osho’s early talks in English, since his earlier talks were mostly in Hindi. Osho’s insights into Yoga are brilliant.

I once used Swami Prabhavananda’s comparatively short commentary on the Yoga Sutras as essential reading in one of the courses I taught at a business school – a course in Leadership Excellence based on Indian Philosophy. This was at XLRI School of Business and Human Resources, Jamshedpur, one of India’s top business schools.

Of all the commentaries on the Yoga Sutras, perhaps the most widely read one is by Swami Vivekananda, under the title Raja Yoga. The study of the Yoga Sutras by Swami Krishnandada is available online as also studies by several others, including those of Sri Shyamacharan Lahiri Mahasaya, Pt. Baldev Mishra, Charles Johnston and Dennis Hill. Other reputed commentaries on the Yoga Sutras include those of Swami Shivanandaji and of Swami Venkateshananda, both of the Divine Life Society, that of I.K. Taimini, and Four Chapters on Freedom, the commentary by Swami Satyananda Saraswati.
Photo courtesy: Gettysberg Images


  1. What do you think about understanding of an asana as it is in modern hatha yoga schools?

    My opinion: it has been distorted. You can read my opinion in my blog.

  2. so how is the commentary by Saravagatananda on the Yoga Sutras? Is it a detailed study of each word and meaning; does he comment and quote on the traditional commentaries, or is it a modern discussion on them?

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