Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Journey from Distracted Mind to Focus

Article of the Month - Oct 2021

This article by Manisha Sarade

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Today, Yoga has a worldwide following and has become a household word. Some 300 million people practice Yoga in the world, with close to 40 million in the US alone. As it entered the popular consciousness worldwide, the ancient practices of Yoga have undergone significant changes. Yoga’s moorings in deep philosophical insight, and grounding as an indispensable aid in living a Dharmic life, has perhaps receded into the background. It is not widely known that bahiranga yoga is only a small part of the Yoga Sutra text, which deals with understanding the ‘self’ (one’s limited identity and personhood) referred to antaranga yoga, and transcending the self to realize the “Self” known as parama antaranga yoga, in far more detail.

The Wisdom of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

Yoga is considered by some to be the oldest unbroken line of philosophical/spiritual thought. It has its origins in India at the time of the Rig Veda, perhaps the oldest book in the world. It spread to the north, to the east (where it is known as Chan and Zen) and eventually to the west. So many people talk about ‘Yoga Sutras’ without knowing their origin. There is much debate surrounding ‘who is the writer of yoga sutra?’ – with the jury still out on the same. A product of the much-acclaimed ancient sage Patanjali, this compilation of 195 sutras or words of wisdom forms the backbone of classical or raja yoga.

The Indian scholar and sage Patanjali

Patanjali is not the inventor of yoga, but rather yoga’s most well-known systematiser and compiler. What has become known simply as the “Yoga Sutras” or the “Yoga Darshana” (the vision of Yoga), is actually a compendium of an ancient pre-existing oral yoga tradition consisting of practical advice on the yogic path, written in the Sanskrit language approximately 2000 years ago in Northern India while utilizing the terminology of the times. This compilation of verses about yoga derives its knowledge from archaic traditions. Although not much credible information is available about Patanjali, historians believe that this sage has more accomplishments to his credit, including major works on Ayurveda and Sanskrit grammar.

The Great Sage Patanjali

What is a Sutra?

The word sutra, which is related to the Latin word sutra, means literally ‘thread’. In Indian philosophy itis widely used to denote a thread of thoughts and this is exactly the meaning behind the title Yoga Sutra. Patanjali’s work is a compilation of his threads of thought on Yoga, which was to be memorized by his disciples. Sutra corresponds roughly to what we call aphorisms, except they are always very succinct. In fact, they often are so brief that without the traditional commentaries it would be virtually impossible to decipher them because words can have all kinds of meanings, and in order to make sense of a sentence, we need to know just what is being said and which of several connotations of a word is intended.

The Secret of the Yoga Sutra (Samadhi Pada)

It is also interesting to understand that the Sanskrit language does not have an equivalent word for “philosophy”, which we derived from the Greek language where it literally means “the love (philia) of wisdom (Sophos)”. Instead, the Sanskrit scholars would often use the word Darshana, which literally means “viewing”. Thus, Patanjali’s school of thought is known as yoga Darshana or the viewpoint of yoga.

What exactly is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras?

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali put together information from several ancient texts about practices that the modern world now recognizes as ‘yoga’. Though references to yoga and its practices had long existed in ancient Hindu texts and scriptures, their complexity and diversity refrained the general public from seeking access to it. This had prompted the seer to simplify the existing teachings in an easy-to-understand format for all to follow. The Patanjali Yoga Sutras book consists of four smaller books, including the:

पंतजलि योगसूत्र: Patanjali Yoga Sutra
  • Samadhi Pada or the ‘Book of Contemplation’
  • Sadhana Pada or the ‘Book of Practice’
  • Vibhuti Pada or the ‘Book of Accomplishments’
  • Kaivalya Pada or the ‘Book of Absoluteness’

The Yog Sutras written by Patanjali gives a detailed and deep philosophical aspect of yoga. This explains its wide acceptance, popularity and availability in multiple languages.

Samadhi Pada

Hailed as one of the foundational texts of classical yoga philosophy, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra books start by defining the goal of practicing yoga. The book starts with the basics of learning to ascertain the ‘essence’ of life and distinguish it from how we perceive it. It is this understanding that allows one to be immersed in the experience of absolute unity referred to as ‘Samadhi’ in Sanskrit.

In the first few sutras, Patanjali explains, “Yoga is the progressive settling of the mind into silence. When the mind is settled, we are established in our essential state, which is unbounded consciousness.” This means, “You must look within for peace. Your true self lies within the silence between the thoughts and beyond all your limitations.”

Sadhana Pada

As evident from its name, the second book of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras details instructions for practice. The 55 sutras in this book explain the eight parts of Ashtanga yoga. The eight steps to yoga include:

  • Yama meaning Social Discipline
  • Niyama meaning Self Discipline
  • Asana meaning Yoga Poses
  • Pranayama meaning Breath Control
  • Pratyahara meaning Sense Withdrawal
  • Dharana meaning Concentration
  • Dhyana meaning Meditation
  • Samadhi meaning Self-realization
  • The term ‘Sadhana’ is a connotation for ‘spiritual practice’. Sadhana Pada enlists the steps that a yogi must take to reach a state of union with the higher self.

Vibhuti Pada

A collection of 56 sutras that tells one about the progression of practice, the book focuses on the mind’s ability to recognize its true power. Allegedly referred to as superhuman powers, the book teaches about the ‘Siddhis’ one can achieve through thorough dedication. However, these ‘Siddhis’ can be achieved through ‘Samyam’ or self-control that can be realized by following the three steps of:

However, the seer has also warned that one must practice sans ego, else it would pose obstacles on the path to final liberation or unity with the self.

Kaivalya Pada

This final book of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras contains 34 sutras and refers to the feeling of ‘solitude’ or ‘detachment’ from the materialistic way of life. The book refers to a feeling of liberation from birth or freedom from suffering; it outlines how one can free the mind from all bondages.

Referred to as the last state of yoga and the final destination of all the sutras, this book underscores the goal of any yogi, i.e., enlightenment. Living beings reel between life and death and achieve freedom from this cycle through the realization of immortality. This book entails how one can be completely free from the bondage of life without fearing death and, thus, embrace the eternal self.

Yogavarttika of Vijnanabhiksu: Vol 4. Kaivalyapada

The Present Philosophy surrounding Yoga Sutras

Many people regard the ‘Yoga Sutras’ as a book, though the same must be referred to as a complex arrangement of tools arranged to tell one the need for self-control and the means of realizing it through dedication. The Yoga Sutras express uncertainty about the human body, though the author Patanjali regards it as unclean and unfit for attaining enlightenment. The various threads explained in the four sections of the book explain how to attune the body to attain spiritual perfection. The ‘Yoga sutras explained’ are not arranged linearly. Rather, they are arranged in a circular form like a wheel. All the four ‘Padas’ or sections have different levels of depth. As one progresses in the path to spirituality, the wheel of depth goes deeper and deeper through the four Padas, leading to an ultimate feeling of detachment. The journey from self-realization to the ultimate realization of the self is long and arduous. However, in the quest for the ultimate self lies the feeling of peace that secures oneself from earthly bonds. It is in this endless journey that one experiences the feeling of perfection that is not mirrored in any other source.

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