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Patanjali's Yoga Sutras

We owe our knowledge of yoga to the teachings of Patanjali. The word yoga is derived from the root yuj, which means to bind or yoke. It also means to apply oneself to, or direct one's concentration upon. Yoga has been codified by Patanjali into his classic work, the Yoga Sutras, which contain 196 terse aphorisms. The entire life of man is contained in these, provided we know how to interpret them in our daily life. The Kathopanishad says: When the senses are stilled, the mind is at rest, and the intellect does not waver, the wise say that the state of yoga has been reached.

Patanjali lived in India, around 300 BC. It is said that he was an incarnation of Adisesa, the serpent protecting Lord Vishnu. He was born to a tapasvini by name Gonica. As she was offering oblation to Surya, the Sun God, a small snake appeared in her hands and took human form. It prayed to Gonica to accept him as her son, which she did, naming him Patanjali. (Pata means fallen and anjali means prayer. The method of birth explains Patanjali's name).

Patanjali was the author of classics in three important fields. He wrote a treatise on grammar, the Mahabhasya. He was the author of a major work on ayurveda, the holistic Indian system of natural medicine comprising medicine, surgery, personal, social and environmental hygiene, as well as psychological and spiritual health. And, what interests us most, he compiled the Yoga Sutras. The word sutra means a thread. Says Alistair Shearer in his translation of the Yoga Sutras: "Each sutra resembles a knot of the finest thread that must be teased and unravelled, so that every inch of its meaning is displayed. Only then can the whole fabric of the teaching be woven together."

Patanjali's 196 aphorisms, divided into four sections, are of extreme brevity, each self-contained in its teaching, yet part of the greater whole. They are: (i) Samadhi Pada, on contemplation; (ii) Sadhana Pada, on the practice of yoga; (iii) Vibhuti Pada, on properties and powers in the yogic path; and (iv) Kaivalya Pada, on freedom and liberation.

As the goal of any dharmic law is liberation, Patanjali speaks of this in detail as the eight-fold path of yoga.


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