Patanjali the Legend of Yoga

“I don’t think yoga is meant to give us definite answers, we are meant to study and practice so that we evolve. Yoga is the path of self-transformation, if it gave us all the answers where would the fun be”

Attempting to date the sutras and Patanjali is as problematic as attempting to date yoga, and depends on the source. Yoga as we know it in the West is usually referred to as really quite a recent thing, and I would have agreed until a recent discovery. Ashtanga vinyasa yoga is said to have been discovered by Krishnamachryra and his then young student Patabi Jois on a manuscript called the Yoga Kurunta. This manuscript was said to have been lost, leaving no real evidence of its authenticity. I have never doubted the existence of the text but I think this may not be the case universally. Vamana Rishi is recognised as the author of the Kurunta, which describes this system of Asana Practice. Vamana Rishi is said to lived three to four thousand years ago. You may ask does this have to do with Patanjali. The Korunta was believed to have been written on banana leaves, and the leaves were bound with an ancient edition of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. According to Gregor Maehle the two systems were therefore intended to be practiced and studied together. Hence the name ‘Ashtanga Vinyasa.’

The name Patanjali is linked to several myths and scholars. One version tells us that Patanjali fell from heaven into the upturned hands (Anjali mudra) of the virgin yogi Gonika, who was a powerful yogi. Gonika was praying for an heir to pass on her teachings for the good of humanity.

The name Patanjali is also linked to major works on Sanskrit and Ayurveda, depending on sources. Some scholars will date the works on Sanskrit grammar and traditional Indian medicine to a different time period based on comparable documents. Patanjali would have been something of a renaissance man if he was responsible for all the works some attribute to him, and this may well fit in with the time he may have lived in.

Some explanations will say the Sutras were a culmination of a blossoming philosophy of the time, and came from more than one source. It is not unusual to struggle to get to grips with dates and authors when it comes to the history of yoga. It appears to be usual for yoga teachers to not take credit for their work, and more usual to cite other teachers.

So Patanjali Sutras are the first time yoga teachings recorded rather than passed on orally as was the usual before this. So why would this be the case? Why not continue this way? Well if we look at the history of yoga through the four ages of yoga then I think it makes sense.

The philosophy of the Sutras and of Patanjali definitely has links to Samkhya philosophy. There is evidence that Samkhya philosophy can be traced back to 500 BC. Samkhya is one of the six orthodox philosophies of India, and sometimes described as atheistic, although I think agnostic might be a more accurate description. It is also dualist in that it teaches that the universe is controlled by two realities, Purusha and Prakriti. Samkhya is also known for its theory of the Gunas, or three qualities. These qualities are Sattva which represents balance, Raja which represents Fire and passion, and Tamas which represents ignorance and lethargy.

The Sutras can also be said to have been influenced by Vedantic culture, in that it promotes self-enquiry. The word Veda means Knowledge and anta means the end. So if we return to the four ages of yoga then the Vednatic period, or the end of the Vedas we have the Bhagavad Gita as a possible reference point. The Gita is a Vedantic text which is said to be set at the beginning of Kali Yuga or the last age of yoga/humanity.

According to the four ages of yoga, in the first age or Satya yuga the age of truth, there was no need for teachers as we existed in a state of enlightenment. As we moved further away for this state we needed more teaching, until the teachings need to be recorded. It was no longer possible to just sit by the feet of the teacher and hear their words, we needed written instruction.

So maybe we can start to put Patanjali and his Sutras into some sort of time frame. There is evidence there, although I must admit I like the mystery surrounding yoga. I don’t think yoga is meant to give us definite answers, we are meant to study and practice so that we evolve. Yoga is the path of self-transformation, if it gave us all the answers where would the fun be.