I have been thinking a lot lately about where I would be without practice. When our world is turned upside down, how far can scholarship take us? In times of uncertainty, it is practicing yoga that gives me a sense of stability and calm and connects me to my breath. That connection deepened on my first trip to India twenty years ago, when I began to learn Sanskrit. I fell in love with its sounds and the depths of meaning they conveyed. For me, the study of yoga philosophy has always been practical, from chanting verses to translating texts for my PhD. What inspires me is the link between ideas and a living tradition, in which I participate as a practitioner. As a scholar, I can also see the value of critical distance, but I don’t enjoy pulling things to pieces for the sake of it. Without practice, the deductive nature of scholarship can lead us to essentially miss the point of tradition by focusing on individual pieces and losing sight of the big picture.
Though Sanskrit is often called a dead language, the ideas embodied in its texts help to make sense of this in a vibrant, dynamic way. Modern scholars can get so caught up in details that we miss what happens in the natural process of transmission and invalidate the stories by which the tradition understands itself. This can drown out the deeper truths we are attempting to discuss. There is often an overemphasis on satya, which is a more particular truth, as opposed to ṛta, divine truth. The latter – which is of more interest to practitioners – transcends the fine points that scholars like to debate.
I started thinking about this last year – though it feels much longer ago – when I saw Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish on Broadway. Twice. Its opening song (and one of its most poignant) in English is simply called “Tradition” and in a way not dissimilar to Indian culture, celebrates different social roles. As Tevye, the father, says, “Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many years.” In describing one of these he continues, “You may ask, how did this tradition get started? I’ll tell you – I don’t know. But it’s a tradition.” In the course of the story, however, Tevye is constantly being asked to bend tradition as his daughters one by one fall in love with “the wrong” man, rather than allowing the matchmaker to decide for them. Old traditions expand and evolve to meet a changing world, though there comes a point where it’s too much, even for him.
The word tradition comes from the Latin traditio, meaning “handing over, delivery, surrender, transmission of knowledge, teaching.” The verb from which this derives – trado – combines trans (“over”) + dare (“to give”), which is cognate with the Sanskrit root dā. Interestingly, this is also the root of the word treason: tradition is implicitly a betrayal of sorts. Or perhaps in a more positive light, it involves compromise. As a review of the Yiddish production of Fiddler put it, “The benefit of compromise — and the reason to explore where and to what extent it should apply — is that it forces one to improve, update, and appreciate one’s position without destroying the good in it. Change is not just necessary. It’s inevitable.”
The traditions passed down through Sanskrit texts are a striking example. In a constant process of compromise, they have adapted to changing conditions and concerns, as well as responded to rival philosophies and practices. However, focusing solely on any of these shifts can lead to losing sight of traditional ways of finding meaning. Scholarly attempts to pin everything down – while dismissing those who believe what they consider tall tales – can feel like picking all the petals off a flower and then saying it isn’t beautiful.
This clash of perspectives often arises when identifying authors. Texts that were probably composed across multiple centuries are often traditionally attributed to one single person.How much does it matter if the same Vyāsa – whose name means “compiler” – divided the Vedas into separate collections, narrated the Mahābhārata and wrote the first commentary on Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra? Do works attributed to Rembrandt or his workshop lose their beauty because they were not actually done by him? Perhaps the best-known example is the idea of a single Patañjali who authored the Yoga Sūtra, as well as a text on Āyurveda, the Indian science of medicine, and a commentary on Pāniṇi’s grammar. This provides a foundation for drawing connections between Yoga and Āyurveda, yet scholars have been saying for decades that this unitary Patañjali cannot have existed, due to differences in dating of texts and their style of composition.
Regardless, many practitioners revere the idea of a composite figure. One of Krishnamacharya’s most well-known students, B.K.S. Iyengar, taught this popular verse, which is recited at the start of Iyengar Yoga classes:
yogena cittasya padena vācāṃ malaṃ śarīrasya ca vaidyakena |
yo ’pākarot taṃ pravaraṃ munīṇāṃ patañjaliṃ prāñjalir ānato ’smi ||
With palms folded together,
I bow respectfully to Patañjali, the best of sages,
Who dispels the impurities of the mind with Yoga,
Of speech through Grammar, and of the body by means of Medicine.
These lines are quoted in Śivarāma’s eighteenth-century commentary on the Vāsavadattā of Subandhu. They also have precedence in one of the introductory verses to Bhoja’s eleventh-century commentary on the Yoga Sūtra, the Rājamārtaṇḍa:
The brilliant words of the Honorable King Raṇaraṅgamalla (Bhoja) are victorious.
He composed the Sarasvatīkaṇṭhābharaṇa, a treatise on grammar,
wrote a commentary on Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra, the Rājamārtaṇḍa,
and created a work called the Rājamṛgāṅka on medicine.
Like Patañjali, the Lord of Cobras, he removed the impurities
of speech, mind and body.
While modern scholars have spent a significant amount of energy disproving this idea, the myth still lives on in the imagination of practitioners, inspiring connections to broader traditions. Although the word “myth” has come to be popularly used to represent a false idea, it originally refers to a traditional story that illustrates truths. Its historical accuracy was, therefore, less important than sharing ideas, around which people built communities. The desire to bring together Yoga, Āyurveda, and grammar must have served an original purpose. The recent AyurYog project has been focusing on exploring these intersections and entanglements. And if modern connections are valid in their own right, do they have to be abandoned because their foundations are open to question? It’s not that history doesn’t matter, but it can distract from other sources of meaning. Traditions always change, and myths help them to do so, allowing old ideas to converse with each other in new ways.
Something similar occurred with Advaita Vedānta, the non-dual philosophy developed by Śaṅkarācārya in the eighth century. Its ideas have evolved over time, and tradition explains this by attributing popular texts to Śaṅkara that Western scholars believe he may not have composed. So much time and effort goes into debating authenticity. Again, it’s not unimportant, but I think something deeper is too often lost. If modern Advaitins accept that Śaṅkara wrote texts such as the Vivaraṇa commentary on the Yoga Sūtra, the Aparokṣānubhūti and the Vivekacūḍāmaṇi, the ideas they contain become part of their practice and understanding of the tradition. It allows for innovation within a living lineage, and this has its own validity that academic writing only rarely acknowledges.
My teacher, K. Pattabhi Jois – one of Krishnamacharya’s other main students – named the yoga he taught “Ashtanga Yoga” in order to connect it to the eight-part Yoga of Patañjali. He wanted the name itself to invoke questions and inquiry and to be a constant reminder that the physical practice had higher aims. The opening mantra, which is chanted by teachers and students as call-and-response, combines two verses: the first is from the Yoga Tārāvalī, attributed to Śaṅkarācārya (though probably written in the fourteenth century), and the second is a dhyāna (meditation) śloka to Patañjali, together implicitly combining non-dual Advaita Vedānta and dualistic Yoga.
vande gurūṇāṃ caraṇāravinde sandarśita-svātma-sukhāvabodhe |
niḥśreyase jāṅgalikāyamāne saṃsāra-āhala-mohaśāntyai ||
ābāhu-puruṣākāraṃ śaṅkha-cakrāsi-ṇam |
sahasra-śirasaṃ śvetaṃ praṇamāmi patañjalim ||
I bow to the two lotus feet of the teachers,
Through which the understanding of the happiness in my own Self has been revealed.
My ultimate refuge, acting like a snake doctor,
For the pacifying of the delusions caused by the poison of cyclic existence.
Who has the form of a human up to the arms,
Bearing a conch, a discus and a sword.
White, with a thousand heads,
I bow to Patañjali.
At the end of the mantra, he used to always chant a secret verse, considered an invocation to the Brahmasūtras, which most students never learned unless they studied prāṇāyāma with him. It was as if he were planting the seeds for an ultimate Advaitic understanding. At the heart of this chant is a variation on a mahāvākya (“great saying”) from the Upaniṣads, brahma eva aham asmi, which means “I am that very brahman alone.” His son, Manju Jois, sees no contradiction between Advaita and Yoga, despite their different philosophies (the former is based on oneness and the latter on separation). As he said in an interview, the connection between them is simply accepted, while other teachers and sects have different emphases:
“Shankaracharya represents Advaita, that’s what we study. And Ramanujacharya is Vaishnava, that’s a different study, that’s what they follow. And Madhvacharya preaches sampradaya, it’s called. They have different categories, different ways to teach, because Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya, they don’t talk about yoga or anything—it’s more spiritual. Only Shankaracharya is more into yoga.”
This is exactly how traditions change – through the paramparā of knowledge passed from teacher to student and parent to child. It is because of such shifts that yoga today is often said to mean “union,” despite its dualistic origins in the Yoga Sūtra, where Patañjali defines liberation as the separation and isolation of puruṣa (spirit) from prakṛti (matter). This is in contrast to the ultimate realization of Advaita, in which ātman and brahman – the individual and the absolute – are seen as identical.
The majority of scholarship on modern yoga is focused on how the physical tradition of āsana practice has come to be so popular, tracing its origins to textson haṭha yoga from the last eight hundred years. However, these texts often say very little about religion and philosophy, while influential teachers such as Krishnamacharya and his students were greatly informed by these perspectives. Their understanding and interpretation of tradition can be seen in their choice of invocations, reflecting a synthesis of various schools of thought that is seen most clearly in the Yoga Upaniṣads. These are relatively recent texts, in which physical techniques became woven together with both the dualistic tradition of Yoga and the non-dual philosophy of Advaita.
yoga-hīnaṃ kathaṃ jñānaṃ mokṣadam bhavati dhruvam ||
yogo hi jñāna-hīnas tu na kṣamo mokṣa-karmaṇi |
tasmāj jñānaṃ ca yogaṃ ca mumukṣur dṛḍham abhyaset ||
Without yoga, how can there be knowledge,
Which surely bestows liberation.
But yoga, without knowledge, is not enough,
As an action leading towards liberation.
Therefore, one desiring freedom,
Should steadily practice both yoga and knowledge.
As we see in this verse from the Yogatattvopaniṣat (14cd-15), practice and theory were seen as extensions of each other, and both became integral to the tradition. Multiple truths are allowed to co-exist as a result. While scholars struggle to make sense of disparities, for practitioners there is no conflict. And if it is true in the imagination of those who uphold the living tradition of Advaita and Yoga, then I think we have to accept it as a version of truth. In any case, most traditional commentaries on the Yoga Sūtra were actually written by Advaitins, regardless of whether Śaṅkara wrote the one attributed to him. In more recent times, Swami Vivekananda made similar connections in his book Rāja Yoga. Though scholars like to dissect it, he was just continuing a synthesis that had been underway for centuries. While in Śaṅkara’s time, it might not have been possible to be an Advaitin and also a Yogi, I think today one unquestionably can. Academic study is all very interesting (and I am working to finish my PhD dissertation as I write this), but scholarship divorced from practice doesn’t lead to enlightenment, nor is it particularly relevant to everyday life. In times of uncertainty and challenge, it is practice that gives people solace, not theory alone.