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Does our “Yoga Tradition” come from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras?

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One of my favorite religious studies academics has a book on the Yoga Sutra of Patanjalii out later this year. While it was his editor who convinced him to work on a book about the Yoga Sutra, he quickly found himself excited about the topic. Here are excerpts from a recent two-part interview (part I and part II):

David: What’s most interesting to me, I had this kind of throw away idea I told the editor. I decided I’d count YS manuscripts to get some idea of how important it was, to find out were people reading or writing commentaries on this book. So I spent the summer reading manuscript catalogs which was unusual. I ended up doing quantitative analysis.

Susan: I see – you were counting and analyzing records of all the manuscripts in libraries and collections. Why look at manuscript catalogs? Is it more efficient?

David: Because of the climate, of course, manuscripts in South Asia don’t last that long, but with the manuscript catalogs that were published in the late nineteenth century, you can go back another couple of hundred years. These catalogs classify the philosophies of India under six headings: Yoga, Samkhya, Mimamsa, Nyaya, Vaisesika, and Vedanta.

Susan: And this is when things got exciting in the research –

David: Yes. By far the fewest represented categories were samkhya and yoga: out of a total of 30,000 or so extant philosophy manuscripts, only 500 are manuscripts of the Yoga Sutra and its commentaries.

Even within the category of “Yoga Philosophy,” there are many more works on hatha yoga than on the YS; and if you look at works on tantric yoga (which are generally classified under the “Tantra” category and not the “Philosophy” category), there are many more of these manuscripts than there are YS manuscripts.

Susan: 500 out of 30,000 – and then within that the YS is a small number?! That’s a pretty amazing indictment of claims the YS is central to the practice of yoga.

David: The proportions I came up with, based on an careful examination of about fifty catalogues for archives whose holdings represent perhaps 80% of the total number of Indian manuscripts on the six philosophies, were the following:

There were forty times as many manuscripts on Vedanta philosophy as on the Yoga Sutra and its commentaries.

There were thirty-three times as many manuscripts on Nyaya philosophy as on the Yoga Sutras and its commentaries.

In other words, the number of extant YS manuscripts at the end of the nineteenth century was not even within the realm of statistical error, not a blip on the screen.

My conclusion is that by the 18th century no one was rewriting YS manuscripts because no one in India cared about the philosophy of Patanjali. That goes to what Mark [Singleton] was talking about in the collection he edited with his colleague –

By the 17th century the Yoga Sutra had disappeared from the Indian philosophical landscape. This also explains why Krishnamacharya couldn’t find a yoga expert for his own studies.

So, where does our “yoga tradition” come from? Not the Yoga Sutra.

It’s even open to question as to what importance the YS ever had, even pushing back to 16th century which explains why it would not even be primary yoga philosophy by the time these people were making these catalogs.

Susan: I was asking you the other day about Mark Singleton (Yoga Body:The Origins of Modern Posture Practice) and the fact some people seem to like to take his thesis about postures as fuel for “what’s physical isn’t yoga” or “isn’t the spiritual part” of yoga, without really seeing he’s saying quite a bit that takes the whole perspective apart.

David: It seems like such an irrelevant quarrel. As an historian, I’m not interested in what people think in the 21st century, it’s so much less interesting to me than 15th or even the 12th century.

Susan: Is there any context in your work that might address this frequent polarization of physical and spiritual in contemporary yoga talk?

David: Talking about what ‘people say’ is or isn’t yoga – what people say is really people articulating what they think they’re doing. In my mind, it’s impossible for me to differentiate between physical and spiritual.

… My vocation is to write about how people have interpreted what they do, preferably from the early period but also into the modern period, so I’ve just been recording testimonies about tantra, about alchemical practice, and this is what people have said about what they do.

To get back to your question of compared to today, is there a fit or not – it doesn’t make what people practice right or wrong, though actually I think it does matter that these teachers, these yoga gurus are pumping their 21st century phobias and fantasies into their yoga rap –

… I’m getting to know more and more yoga gurus. They seem to believe what they say, but I can’t help but think they’re in denial.

I was struck by The New York Times article about John Friend with the photo of yogis – well mostly yoginis – on their mats in rows around him.

… I don’t doubt that Friend is totally sincere. Who am I to say that those people are wrong. It’s not about right or wrong. They’re just not historically accurate.

I don’t doubt he thinks he’s doing well by doing good for other people. I can’t imagine that he’s just in it for the power and glory.

Susan: I’m being deliberately extreme, but haven’t plenty of people who’ve had a lot of power suggested they’re benevolent? My question is always: how or at what cost to other people has that power been achieved?

David: Again, that’s my quarrel: it’s historical accuracy.

You know, it’s impossible to do what they do without some kind of editing and synthesis. Anything more accurate will get in the way of their high paced yoga circuit economy.

This oversimplification of yoga is the definition of fundamentalism. We know that, and we know where fundamentalism leads.


Written by virtualsatsang

February 2, 2011 at 7:51 am

Posted in History, Yoga

3 Responses

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  1. […] that I’ve previously highlighted. One additional academic source worth mentioning is David Gordon White’s upcoming book on the Yoga Sutras. … Both Sjoman and Mark Singleton, a US-based scholar who has interviewed many of those […]

    Malas « Virtual Satsang

    February 23, 2011 at 10:04 am

  2. Given that the Sutras have been commented on by Vyasa, Shankaracarya, Vacaspati Misra, VignanaBhiksu, Hariharananda, and many other serious major players in the field of yoga, I am seriously skeptical of your ideas. How many modern books on “yoga” even approach the idea of yoga in a serious way? Maybe one to two percent? Given that you are suggesting 500 comments out of 30000 that gives one percent, pretty damn good in my estimation. If we followed what was true due to popularity, I think we would be damned in my opinion….

    Matt Huish

    March 26, 2011 at 12:18 am

  3. Hi Matt,
    David Gordon White’s quantitative approach isn’t unique. In Patanjali and Constructive Orientalism, Mark Singleton points out that the position of Yogasutras as the “classical” text of yoga practice is a modern phenomenon. N.E. Sjoman has also pointed out “The textual tradition from Patanjali from an estimated 150 BC is a dead textual tradition. Vyasa, the first commentator on Patanjali, is generally considered to have lost touch with the tradition already – if there is one.”


    April 28, 2011 at 1:36 am

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