Tarka #001

On the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

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On the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali


Patañjali’s Yogasūtras represent Classical Yoga.  

It is also one of the most commonly translated and studied texts in Yoga philosophy.  Yet, the notion of a Yoga tradition (as with most religious traditions) should not be misconstrued as a unilateral continuation of a single practice or philosophy through history.  

The origin of Yoga and even its fundamental purpose is varied and debated.  Still, between 200-400ce many of these varied aspects of Yoga were codified into Patañjali’s Yogasūtras, a text that came to represent one of the six distinct philosophical schools (darśana) said to comprise orthodox Hinduism.  The term darśana, usually translated as “philosophical school,” more directly means vision, view, or mirror.  As such, the practice of Yoga as a darśana can be understood as a way of seeing oneself truthfully, or as a cultivation of insight.  

The six schools of Indian philosophy are Sāṅkhya, Yoga, Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika, Mīmāṁsā, and Vedānta.  Each school has its own sūtrakara, a tradition or author that organized and systematized its basic philosophical tenants into a succinct text.  As such, sūtrakaras never invent, they ‘sew together’ existing practices and theories with their sūtras.  They are considered orthodox in relation to Hinduism because they maintain a basic acknowledgment of the Vedas as scripture, unlike heterodox schools such as Buddhism and Jainism.  

The designation of the six schools as distinct philosophies is estimated around 1,000 CE, at the earliest.  Thus, in considering the early formation of Patañjali Yoga it is important to note that the boundaries between schools of thought, both orthodox and heterodox, were not as firmly established as they may appear today.  

Patañjali’s text in particular has been associated with the Sāṅkhya school of philosophy and is also thought to have borrowed from and been influenced by early Buddhist and Jain traditions.  It is historically significant because it drew from many existing practices and theories to create a codified synthesis of the purpose and nature of Yoga.  

The word Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj, or “to bind.”  Yet the initial goal of yoga (according to Patañjali), samādhi or meditative absorption, demands asceticism and often suggests a process more aptly described as viyoga, or “to unbind.”  Patañjali begins the YS by stating (1.2) yogaś citta-vṛitti-nirodhaḥ, or “Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind.”  In this case, the “binding” indicated in the term Yoga may point to the absorption (samādhi) of complete concentration.  

Nonetheless, this absorption also clearly entails a stringent practice of detachment, here termed nirodhaḥ (cessation) and later explained in sūtra 1.12 abhyāsa-vairāgyābhyāṁ tan-nirodhaḥ, or “[The vṛtti (fluctuating) states of mind] are stilled by practice and dispassion.”  In this way, the opening sūtras of the YS present a formative etymological and dialectical tension within the study of Yoga.  Yoga, in the Yogasūtras, is a detachment oriented practice that aims at the recovery, or realization, of unafflicted consciousness.  

The articles in this first issue of Tarka approach the Yogasūtra from a variety of angles and provide a broad introduction to this text.  They were initially published along side the lecture series, Radical Practice: Living the Yogasūtra and Bhagavad Gītā.  If you are interested in this programing it is available in the “learn” section of the Embodied Philosophy web page.  

~ Stephanie Corigliano, Tarka Managing Editor
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