By Kausthub Desikachar
The Sat Vaidika Darsana-s or the six philosophical schools as they were more commonly known, evolved in ancient India during a period which many consider as the Golden Era of Spirituality. The context and challenges that society faced at that time would have deemed such a revolution essential. Almost all of the great schools of wisdom originated at this time, and has not only been a great source of wisdom for generations through time, but also has been a great source of inspiration for other teachings that evolved later in other parts of the world.
The most intriguing aspect of this spiritual renaissance was that fact that, though vastly different in the means each of these six schools shared the same fundamental goal - the elimination of human suffering. It was probably a collective consciousness, that each of these individual authors had, that made them understand that the diverse complexities of human suffering, needed to be addressed in more ways than one. Hence rather than evolve a common approach, six different ways evolved that become to be known as the Sat Vaidika Darsana-s.
The Yogasutra-s of Patanjali belongs to this collection of extra-ordinary teachings, and is presented through a series of 195 aphorisms. Though not necessarily the first text that discusses the concept of Yoga, the Yogasutra of Patanjali is most definitely the first text that is dedicated exclusively to Yoga as comprehensive psycho-spiritual philosophy. It is the main reason why most yoga masters of the past and present consider Yogi Patanjali as the founding father of yoga philosophy.
A major point of contention seems to exist in the minds of certain modern scholars who are either grossly ill informed or totally literalistic. They tend to argue that Patanjali may not be the key figure in Yoga, and hence often tend to dismiss the Yogasutra-s as the primary text as well. This lack of understanding may stem from a limited understanding of the difference between what the word yoga means and from what the scope of yoga as a philosophy represents.
Words in a language as refined and potent as Sanskrit, often have more than one meaning, and also more than one layer of significance as well. The word yoga can very simply mean “to yoke”, from the root “yuj”. Often this meaning of the word yoga has been taken to link with other words and give meanings that are contextually significant. For example, the word “bhakti-yoga”, means to link with devotion, or “karma-yoga”, which represents a connection with actions.
However these are not the only meanings of the word yoga. The Amarakosa by Amarasimha, which is often considered as the most ancient of Sanskrit Dictionaries, attributes five meanings to the word yoga.
yogah sannahana upaya sangati dhyana yuktisu.
yoga is protection, a path, a union or connection, meditation, and higher spiritual intelligence
So there is a lot of scope for confusion if the wrong meaning of the word yoga is taken, and put out of context. This is often the reason why there is mention of the word yoga in different texts such as Mahabharata, Ramayana, the Upanisads, and the Purana-s. However they are often connecting with a certain meaning of the word yoga, which is vastly different from it as a philosophical system. In these texts, the more common meaning of yoga as a spiritual or religious union with the supreme being takes precedence over Yoga as a philosophical system. This is probably why the mention of Patanjali, is missing from these texts, as they are not talking about Yoga, the fifth Vaidika Darsana.
Some of the modern day scholars who seem biased by their Vedanta beliefs, talk about a system of yoga originating from a supreme being called Hiranyagarbha*, but offer nothing concrete to substantiate these any further. If there is indeed a system like this, does it offer directions on tools of Yoga practice? Or models that can be used in the context of Yoga Therapy? All of these can be found in the Yogasutra-s of Patanjali.
I can understand that their bias may stem from their deep routed belief in Vedanta philosophy, whose very premise is that every individual must take on a religious journey. Viewing the teachings of Yoga through such eyes, is not necessarily the right approach, and may also not portray yoga in proper light.
Yoga as a Vaidika Darsana, as a philosophy encompasses a wholly different dimension. The Yoga Philosophy presented by Patanjali can be considered as one of the first systems of psychology, that explores and understands the potentials of the human mind. As mentioned earlier, the goal of Yoga Darsana, is not different from those of the other Darsana-s. It is indeed the reduction, and possible elimination of human suffering. However Patanjali makes it quite clear in the Sutra-s that our human mind is not only the cause of our trouble, but also its best solution as well.
With this as the basic premise Patanjali lays out the entire gamut of his teachings through the four chapters of the Sutras, which form the basis for a spiritual journey that is also a self empowering psychological journey. There are many intricate models that Yogasutra-s present in understanding the mind, its defects, its strengths and how to exploit them in a useful manner. Some of these models include the famous four step vyuha model on how to approach healing, which forms the basis of Yoga Therapy.
Patanjali also ensures that Yoga as a psycho-spiritual journey is open to all practitioners of all beliefs, be they religious or not. This is probably why he leaves open the concept of linking with Isvara, (a higher being), as an option, rather than a necessity.
It is for these reasons that the Yogasutra-s stand out as a classic and has withstood the test of time over the last two thousand years, and may last a further two thousand, as it is so relevant and accessible today, as it was in the days of its creation.
Also its role among the pantheon of the great Indian philosophies is undisputed. All the great yoga masters who followed Patanjali, have always taken the time and effort not only to study the great masterpiece, but also have written numerous commentaries to help students understand this gem of a text.
These authors include the great Veda Vyasa, founder of the Vedanta philosophy, as well as author of Mahabharata (of which Bhagawad Gita is a part), Adi Sankara, the founder of the Advaita Vedanta school, Vijnana Bhiksu and Vacaspati Misra, who were also not only great yogis, but also teachers of other philosophies. All of them have not only written commentaries on this great text, but also have invariably begun their writings with profound respects to Patanjali as the supreme yoga master.
All serious students of Yoga must take a moment to reflect why there would be so many amazing commentaries by these exalted masters on the Yoga Sutra-s, if it was not the most significant Yoga text ever to be composed.
Post Script: The word hiranyagarbha literally means “the golden womb”, and is often attributed as the first creator, as well as the first teacher, not only of the yoga tradition, but also of all spiritual wisdom. While literalists may interpret this as a special being or deity, it could be considered to represent something else in a symbolic manner. The “golden womb”, could very well represent our own consciousness, our life force that is within our hearts. It is because we are conscious and alive that we are able to have wisdom, and maybe this is why ancient masters used a metaphor such as the sun, a symbol of light and life, to represent this. Further discussion could occur on this topic, but it falls beyond the scope of this article.
Since over two years now Dr. Kausthub Desikachar conducts an online study group of The Yogasutra-s of Patanjali. The study group meets four times a month (usually weekly) and explores this classic masterpiece composed by Patanjali. It is THE reference text on Yoga and hence will be an asset to every Yoga teacher from all traditions. The study group explores to interpret the Yogasutra-s in a practical manner honouring the philosophical principles proposed by the author, and also uses atleast four of the most important commentaries written on this text to guide us in this path.
The Second Chapter is among one of the most practical chapters of the text and explores the philosophical view of what causes our suffering and what steps can be taken to eliminate them. As with each online course I offer, this course too will include exhaustive handouts, which are sent to participants prior to each month. There are two batches for this course and participants can choose at their convenience which batch is more preferable, based on their time zones.