in other words, YSP is a collection of all the knowledge, practices, guides & obstacles that take place in the path of yoga, described in the form of Sutra around 2500 years ago.
But isn’t it surprising how someone has written such a deep philosophical text in such a long history?
How yoga evolved and what its purpose was at the beginning of civilization would not have been clear until today, if Patanjali would not have synthesized the oral knowledge of the rishis and summaries of the scriptures in the ‘Yoga Sutras’.
In this comprehensive guide, I have elaborated on how Patanjali took birth on earth [efn_note] based on the mythological story [/efn_note] & what events made him write the most authentic text of yoga. After that, there is an overview of 4 chapters of Yoga Sutra in which I have described what’s there is each sutra.
So before we begin elaborating what ‘Yoga Sutras’ are, let’s know about Patanjali.
Who was Patanjali?
Patanjali was just like another sage of ancient India by his living, but by his work, he was a great psychologist, a great doctor of medicine and a grammarian. Thus, Patanjali is credited with three main areas of knowledge.
- As a great psychologist, he imparted knowledge of yoga to purify the mind.
- As a great doctor of medicine, he gave us the science of Ayurveda to purify the body.
- And as a grammarian, Patanjali developed Mahabhashya to purify the speech.
Many followers recite 108 names of Patanjali [efn_note]The 108 Names of Lord Patanjali https://static1.squarespace.com[/efn_note] to get his blessings in the journey of yoga. But generally, to greet Patanjali, we usually use this invocation at the beginning of a yoga class.
Invocation to Sage Patanjali
Yogena cittasya padena vacam, Malam sarirasya cha vaidyakena.
Yopakarottam pravaram muninam, Patanjalim pranjaliranato’smi..
” With folded hands, I respectfully bow down to Patanjali (Patanjalim pranjaliranato’smi), who is greater among sages (pravaram muninam), gave us the science of yoga to purify our Chitta (mind), gave us grammar to use words, & Ayurveda, to remove impurities from our body.”
Patanjali is also known by other names – Gonardiya, or Gonikaputra (son of Gonika Yogini). The literal meaning behind the name ‘Patanjali’ actually rises the story of the birth of Patanjali. It’s said, at the time of his birth, he fell from heaven (Pata means fall) & his hands were in the folded position (Anjali – one of yoga mudra). That’s how the name Patanjali came into existence.
History of Sage Patanjali
There is no clear evidence about when Patanjali was born, but most of the scholar believes he lived around 2nd and 4th century CE [efn_note] Patanjali https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patanjali [/efn_note] (around 2500 years ago).
Although the history of yoga dated back to 5000 years ago & yoga sutra, as one of the prominent text of yoga developed 2500 years after. It denotes the yoga system was actually already developed much before than Patanjali came into existence.
Hindu religious texts, known as Puranas [efn_note] Purana https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Purana [/efn_note] describe mythological stories of the specific gods. The birth story of sage Patanjali also mentioned in Puranas.
NOTE: These stories are passing through ages so there is no evidence or fact behind actual events mentioned in it.
Mythological Story Behind Patanjali: Birth as a Snake
The story of Patanjali begins with Hindu god Vishnu’s servant snake known as Sheshanaga. Sheshanaga is the thousand-headed snake on which Lord Vishnu usually rest upon.
1. Shiva’s Dance & Weight Gain of Vishnu
Once Lord Shiva, also known as Natraja (lord of dance) was dancing. The glory of his dance was so breathtaking that Vishnu can’t resist himself & his body began to vibrate. Vibratory body of Vishnu made him heavy enough that discomforts Sheshanaga.
On completion of Shiva’s dance, Vishnu weight’s instantaneously comes down to normal. At this, snake asked the lord Vishnu:
What was that which causes your weight gain instantaneously?
Then Lord Vishnu told him about Shiva’s dance, on which, Sheshanaga expressed his desire to learn the same dance to please his lord, i.e. Vishnu. At this, Vishnu impressed by his devotion & predicted that Shiva himself will bless him to incarnate on earth where he’ll learn this art.
2. The incarnation of Sheshanaga as Patanjali
As was said, Shiva blessed Sheshanaga to born on earth & he took birth from a yogini named Gonika.
Gonika was doing penance to get a son, whom she could transfer all her knowledge & wisdom. As an offering of her austerity, she meditated upon Sun, the only visible earthly God. With close eyes, she joined her hand & when she opened her eyes, she amazed by a tiny serpent moving in her hands. She was even more amazed when this tiny serpent, within a few moments, assumed a half-human form & with folded hands, pleaded her to accept him as her son. On his request, Gonika accepted him as her son.
Gonika named his son Patanjali, as Pata means “fall from heaven” & Anjali referred to a hand gesture (hand joining in Namaste) that he made when he came into her hands.
This is how Patanjali takes birth on earth.
Then his mother, Gonika started teaching him all the knowledge & understanding she gained through yoga.
How “Yoga Sutras” Came Into Existence?
When Patanjali has completed all the yoga lessons & knowledge from her mother he thought he should convey this knowledge for the betterment of peoples & society.
There is another mythological story behind how Patanjali’s teachings as Yoga Sutras came into existence.
1. The Lesson of 1000 Disciples & 1 Guru
Patanjali decided he’ll convey the knowledge of yoga to the 1000 people in a hall where he’ll stay behind a curtain & other people will be another side of the screen. These 1000 people became the first 1000 disciples of Patanjali.
He restricts all his 1000 disciples to not focus on what’s happening behind the screen (rather focus on his voice only) & to not leave the hall until his teaching has finished. But somehow, they break this rule made by Patanjali.
When Patanjali started imparting knowledge of yoga to 1000 students & each one of them was absorbing this knowledge with full attention. This was going on when one student among 1000 left the room for a while, for some reason.
Meanwhile, another student was very curious to know about what’s happening behind the screen, so he looked behind the screen. On doing this, all the 999 students present in the hall burnt into ashes for breaking the rule. Patanjali became very sad at this.
Then at the same moment, the student who had left the hall for a while returned. He was terrified to see everyone turned into ashes. He begged Patanjali to forgive him for breaking the rule.
2. Curse of Patanjali to His Disciples
Patanjali felt a little good that at least one of his disciples is alive. But because students had broken the discipline (or rules) somehow, he crushed them all to become Brahmarakshas (ghost hung on a tree) & said:
You can only liberate from my curse only when you would be able to teach a person the whole yogic knowledge I gave you.
For many years, Brahmarakshas (ghost hung on the top of a tree) could not find a valid candidate that is worthy enough to get the knowledge of yoga. Brahmarakshas asked everyone, who passed by, to learn Yoga, but no one showed interest in learning yoga from a ghost.
Then Patanjali, out of compassion, showed mercy on Brahmarakshas & came to him to learn the yogic knowledge. In this way, Patanjali became the disciple of the disciple to liberate them from his own curse.
3. The Origin of “Yoga Sutra”
Now, Patanjali, as a disciple started learning yogic knowledge from the Brahmarakshyasa. While learning it, Patanjali wrote all the knowledge of yoga he was getting from his Guru (Brahmarakshyasa) in the form of formulae on palm leaves. Basically, these formulae were the brief quote of the long explanation of verses that today is known as sutras.
In this way, Patanjali wrote all the knowledge of yoga in from Sutras on Palm leaves & collectively it’s (all sutras) known as Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (YSP).
This was all about the mythical origin of Patanjali and Yoga Sutras. Sculptures and Puranas only come with a story, without an explanation, but the answers are always hidden in the story. We just have to relate them to the right thing.
Let’s explore a few answers that might have come in your mind while reading the story.
Question 1: Why was Patanjali sitting behind the screen? Why he does not allow anyone to see him behind the screen?
Perhaps with all this, Patanjali was trying to indicate is that it does not matter who is the teacher or who is teaching. The only thing that matters is the knowledge, whether you are taking it from a bagger or a highly trained professor. Maybe this is the reason why Patanjali spread all his knowledge from behind the screen without uttering a single word form mouth, without letting anyone know who he really is.
Question 2: Why Patanjali’s disciples turned into ashes & crushed by him?
The simple reason for this could be because they broke the rule. Secondly, by his curse, Patanjali might be showing that yoga is the firm discipline that should be learned under some rules. To learn yoga, you need to control all your desires and be in discipline.
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (YSP)
In Hinduism, the yogic system is one of the six philosophies (Shad-Darshans [efn_note] Shad Darshans https://www.esamskriti.com/e/SPIRITUALITY/Shad-Darshanas[/efn_note]) that guides a person towards moksha or libration through the concept of mind & consciousness.
For each system of philosophy, there is an authoritative text & a Sutrakara (sage behind authoritative text).
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (YSP) is an authoritative text of “Yoga Darshan” which is a collection of 196 sutras (codified verses). Each of these 196 sutras works like a thread that combines one aspect of life to the higher one & ultimately leads to the moksha.
Another name by which Patanjali Yoga Sutra is known Pātañjalayogaśāstra i.e. The Treatise on Yoga according to Patañjali.
What Actually Means ‘Sutra’ in YSP
Sutra is a term that is used in various traditions to denote the teachings of spiritual masters. In Sanskrit literature (In which YSP is written), the literal translation of the term Sutra is Aphorism.
According to Yourdictionary [efn_note] Meaning of Aphorism https://examples.yourdictionary.com/aphorism-examples.html[/efn_note]:
An aphorism is a brief saying or phrase that expresses an opinion or makes a statement of wisdom without the flowery language of a proverb.
A Common Analogy — “Sutra” of YSP can be compared to a mathematical formula. Just like a mathematical formula is a short, definitive, & descriptive but brief form of large expression, the same way, Sutra of YSP has written in a short form of aphorisms that is easily memorable. One can elaborate it according to their understanding once Sutra’s meaning has known.
Sadhguru explains [efn_note] True Nature of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras https://isha.sadhguru.org/in/en/wisdom/article/patanjali-yoga-sutras-true-nature [/efn_note] the term ‘Sutra‘ of YSP in the form of “Thread“.
Just like a thread is a base of a garland, no matter what kinds of flowers, beads, or diamonds you add into it, the thread is the most significant entity, But the beauty of a garland is because of flowers, beads, or diamonds, not because of thread.
In the same way, Sutra in YSP is the base of knowledge. But until you don’t know how to apply this knowledge in your life, it’s just like an empty garland or a garland with thread only.
4 Chapters of Yoga Sutras
Patanjali divided the whole knowledge of yoga into 4 chapters of “Yoga Sutras”, In Sanskrit, it’s known as 4 Pada. These 4 Chapters are designed in a systematic way that makes it easy to understand even by a very beginner in yoga.
Here is an overview of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras in 4 simple Chapters.
1st Chapter: “Samadhi Pada” Explains What Yoga Is!
In ’51 Sutras’ of the first chapter of Yoga Sutra, Patanjali has explained what actually yoga is! As yoga ultimately is the culmination of Samadhi, this chapter named Samadhi Pada. Patanjali began with these sutras to enlighting the Sadhaka’s (seeker) inner soul.
- Sutra 1.1 to 1.4 points around the definition of yoga in terms of mental purification.
- Sutra 1.5 to 1.11 tells about five mental fluctuations that yoga diminishes.
- Sutra 1.12 to 1.16 explaining how to reach the state of yoga by bringing balance in persistence & serenity
- Sutra 1.17 to 1.18 defines concept of samadhi & samskara (result of our Karma)[efn_note] What Are Samskaras https://yogainternational.com/article/view/what-are-samskaras [/efn_note] on various level
- Sutra 1.19 to 1.22 describes kinds of seekers & roles of devotion, will, & memory in the yoga journey.
- Sutra 1.23 to 1.29 explaining the nature & importance of Ishvara (God) & OM (sacred sound) as a symbol of God.
- Sutra 1.30 to 1.32 points out 9 obstacles faced by a seeker in the journey of yoga.
- Sutra 1.33 to 1.39 describes the methods to deal with these obstacles.
- Sutra 1.40 to 1.51 Once Chitta stabilizes from obstacles, these sutras lead the seeker towards the highest experience through different Samadhi.
2nd Chapter: “Sadhana Pada” Explains Steps to Union
The second chapter of Patanjali Yoga Sutra contains 55 sutras that are about all the instructions and guidelines we have to follow while performing yoga. Sadhna Pada describes the Kriya Yoga (yoga of action) and Ashtanga Yoga (eight-limbed yoga).
- Sutra 2.1 to 2.2 is an introduction to Kriya Yoga [efn_note] what is Kriya Yoga https://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/intro-yoga-philosophy-tap-heat [/efn_note]
- Sutra 2.3 to 2.9 tells about the five psychological afflictions ( five Kleshas)
- Sutra 2.10 to 2.11 explains how to eliminate Kleshas (spiritual burden).
- Sutra 2.12 to 2.16 describe the cause and origin of Klesha and how it is related to Karma (our actions or deeds) and Vritti
- Sutra 2.17 to 2.26 tells how the Klesha, the cause of suffering is treated.
- Sutra 2.27 to 2.29 is an introduction to Eight limbs of yoga (Ashtanga Yoga).
- Sutra 2.30 to 2.45 is a detailed explanation of Yama and Niyama.
- Sutra 2.46 to 2.48 describes Asana.
- Sutra 2.49 to 2.52 tells the concept of Pranayama.
- Sutra 2.53 to 2.55 explains what is Dharana.
3rd Chapter: “Vibhuti Pada” Explains Powers of Yoga
Vibhuti Pada is the collection of 56 sutra that tells the benefits that one can acquire by Yoga. The word Vibhuti is a Sanskrit word for ‘power’ or ‘manifestation’. As this chapter tells the powers that can be acquired by yoga, this chapter is named, Vibhuti Pada. This chapter starts by telling the rest of the three limbs of yoga.
- Sutra 3.1 to 3.3 tells the last three limbs of yoga, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi respectively.
- Sutra 3.4 to 3.9 explains what is Samyama (holding together) [efn_note] Samyama https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samyama [/efn_note].
- Sutra 3.10 to 3.16 addresses to Parinama (transformation)[efn_note] what is Parinama https://www.yogapedia.com/definition/5722/parinama [/efn_note] and its types.
- Sutra 3.17 to 3.49 is all about the Siddhis (powers) that Yoga provides us.
- Sutra 3.50 to 3.56 introduces with the Kaivalya [efn_note] what is Kaivalya http://sivanandaonline.org/public_html/ [/efn_note](liberation)
4th Chapter: “Kaivalya Pada” Explains Concept of Liberation
The fourth or the last chapter of Patanjali yoga sutra is a collection of 34 sutras that tells the end result of yoga or the concept of freedom. The literal meaning of the Sanskrit word Kailavya is ‘isolation‘ or ‘detachment‘.
This chapter revolves around the isolation or liberation of the soul from the trap of the physical world, therefore it is named Kailavya Pada.
- Sutra 4.1 to 4.3 tells the ways to attain Siddhi[efn_note] Siddhi https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siddhi[/efn_note] (fulfillment, accomplishment)
- Sutra 4.4 to 4.6 addresses the power and ability of Chitta.
- Sutra 4.7 to 4.8 tells about actions and Karma (our actions or deeds).
- Sutra 4.9 to 4.11 explains what are desires and their consequences.
- Sutra 4.12 to 4.14 tells about the Tri-Gunas.
- Sutra 4.15 to 4.28 describes the method to remove all the obstacles on the way to liberation.
- Sutra 4.29 to 4.33 explains all the changes after reaching the stage of liberation.
- Sutra 4.34 tells the feeling of Kaivalyam (liberation).
The Yoga Sutras and the story of Patanjali is all about discipline. Yoga requires discipline. There is no need for discipline when it comes to our joy and happiness. We don’t require discipline to do something that gives us joy and relaxation.
Whenever we feel sun striking hard, we go for shade. Right? This is not because there is any rule to go in the shade while the sun is striking, we do it because it gives us joy and relaxation.
Actually, we need discipline when we do something less attractive, something that we are not very happy to do but the result is good for us. Like eating fast food very much is not good for health, but we like it. Therefore we have to maintain discipline not to eat fast food much, to stay healthy.
So, to get the desired result from yoga, one should perform it with discipline.