Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

Patanjali was a legendary Indian saint who lived thousands of years ago. Among his many works are his three important texts that are part of three important areas of human life, namely; language, medicine and psychology. He is also credited for his commentary on the basic Sanskrit grammar book by Panini. Charaka Samhita , the Sanskrit text on Ayurveda is his contribution to the medical field. Yoga Darsana in sutra (aphorism) form is his basic text on Indian psychology. Through this article Kaithapram Vasudevan Namboodiri tells us more about this literary genius and explains in detail the 33rd sutra from Patanjali’s work, Yoga Darsana.

He was a genius, ‘three in One’ and this is reminded through the invocation chanted at the beginning of every Yoga session:-

Yogena cittasya, padena vaacaam , malam sareerasya ca vaidyakena…………

This great saint was well-known for helping to remove the impurities of the mind through Yoga, of the language through grammar and of the body through Ayurveda. For this expertise, he deserves to be bowed down with folded hands.

His physical form was understood to be unattractive and strange. Another invocatory prayer says:-

Aabaahu purushaakaram, sankha cakraasidhaarinam…………..

This explains that his upper body  had a human form. He held a conch and a disc in his hands. He was crowned with a thousand-headed cobra. (his lower body was that of a snake.) And he was understood to be the  incarnation of Aadisesha.

An interesting story about the birth of Patanjali is to be noted. Aadisesha, a thousand (infinite number of) headed serpent, also called Ananta, was the lord of all serpents whose coiled body was the huge couch for Lord Vishnu in the vast milky ocean in his abode, Vykuntha.

Once, Lord Vishnu,  while watching the enchanting dance of Lord Siva became so absorbed in it that his body started moving in the rhythm of the music. Adisesha was watching and enjoying the changes  happening in Lord Vishnu. After the dance Adisesha expressed his desire to learn dance and accordingly Lord Vishnu blessed him with human birth, which will allow him to do amazing things in the field of dance, language, health and psychology.

Adisesha was excited with the blessings he got and looked forward to his earthly life and his future mother. In the meantime, there was an old Yogini on earth, named Gonika, who was waiting for a blessing to give birth to a son.  One day, after praying to the Sun God to fulfill her desire she offered an oblation to him with a handful of water. After the prayer she opened her eyes to see a tiny snake on her palms. She placed the snake on the banks of the river where it  grew into a human male form.

This child was named Patanjali since he was fallen into folded hands. Here, folded hands are called anjali and pata means fallen. He was also called Gonikaputra, the son of Gonika. He was also called an incarnation of Adisesha and of Ananta. He fulfilled the will of the Lord through his study, experiments, and documentation. Enthusiasts have followed his works in the pursuit of developing a refined language, a cultured body and a civilized mind.

Even though his commentary on ashta addhyayi (Sanskrit grammer) and Charka Samhita (Ayurveda) are great works, Yoga Sutra was his most celebrated work. Yoga Sutra used a very compact form of language with bare minimum words and letters. This is very much apt for students since there is very little text to by heart. There are a total of just 195 sutras in Paatanjala Yoga Darsana distributed in four chapters.

Here, Yoga is defined as that which arrests and controls the movements or modifications of the mind (Yogah chitta vritti nirodhah) through which one can establish his “real nature” (Swaroope avasthanam).  So taming of the mind has been the essence of Yoga. Patanjali describes in detail the modifications that can occur to the mind and the means to remove them. Patanjali puts forth many means to attain this goal. According to him, one should pocess Abhyasa (persistent practice) and Vairagya (absence of desire) to attain this.

Patanjali was not against God. He recommends surrendering to God as a path to Samadhi by silencing the mind and by cessation of mental waves. But the general approach of Patanjali is secular in nature. Patanjali puts forth ashtangayoga (eight-limbed yoga) as a means to attain higher planes of the mind which is comparatively easy for the common man to perform. Yama (self- restraints), niyama (fixed observances) asana (postures) pranayama (regulation of breath) pratyahara (withdrawal of senses) dharana (concentration) dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (trance) are the eight limbs.

It is understood that it is difficult to understand the details of the sutras in such a short article. But through a single sutra we can taste the sutras of Patanjali. The sutra that will be discussed here is the 33rd sutra from the first chapter, Saadhanaa Paada:-

Maitree karunaa muditopekshaanaam sukha duhkha punyaapunya vishayaanaam bhaavanaatah cittaprasaadanam.

The mind (chitta) becomes graceful (prasaadanam) by cultivating positive attitudes (bhaavanaatah).  There are four things that can disturb our mind, distract us from the yogic path and arrest our grace. These are happiness’s (sukha), sorrows (duhkha), virtues (punya) and vices (apunya) of the people around us.  When we see a happy man, our mind becomes envious or malicious and our mental peace is disturbed. Our attitude to him makes our mind turbulent. So it is imperative that the change should take place within us. The things happening outside is usually not under our control and so any kind of outward reaction will not help us in our pursuit  for inner peace. For attaining inner peace, we should first understand our attitude towards these four factors. We should try to see the happy man as our friend (maitree). By doing so, we become beneficiaries. Thus, the mental imbalance caused by seeing the happiness of others is made neutral by our attitude of friendship towards them. Likewise, others sorrows can be cleared from our mind through the attitude of sympathy (karunaa) towards them. When we see deeds of virtues (punya), we should feel glad (mudita). When we happen to see others doing vicious deeds (apunya) we have to cultivate indifference (upeksha) towards them.

One can understand the practical nature of this sutra only when we start practicing this in our day-to- day life. Yes, it is a purely pragmatic psychology.

There are so many such psychological tips in this treatise which can be used successfully in our daily life. They are not to be buried in the pages of books,  but to be practiced in each person’s life. We can thus conclude that Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is a great work on human psychology and perhaps the best.

Kaithapram Vasudevan Namboodiri, Yoga M.Sc., AYUSH-Certified Yoga Teacher, Yoga TTC from Sivanandasram (Neyyar Dam). Director, Patanjali Yoga Training and Research Centre.

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