Introduction to Classical Yoga
Historical & Philological remarks
Understanding Important Terms
© Wim van den Dungen
Completely Revised Edition :
The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali
English, French and Dutch Translations
with Buddhist Commentary
by Taurus Press, 2016
available in EPUB and POD format.
Historical & Philological remarks
(§ 1) The available evidence about the author of these Sûtra's is not without the usual
confusion typical for more than one Indian text. Earlier scholars affirmed that Patañjali
-the yogin- and Patañjali -the grammarian- (who wrote the Mahâbhasya in the 2th
century B.C.) were most probably not the same person. According to the intelligent
mayority these Sûtra's are the product of the third century A.D. This school of yoga is
known as 'classical'. Legend explains how Patañjali was an incarnation of Visnu, called
Ananta. In the 11th century A.D. Al-Bîrunî translated the Yoga-Sûtra in Arab.
This allowed one of the six classical schools of philosophy of India to directly
influence Sufism. These Sûtra's may be regarded as the 'Crown' of the 'darsana'
(point of view) called : 'yoga'. No commentary on these Sûtra's by a member of the
classical school has been found. The two classical commentators (Vyâsa in the 5th &
Vâcaspati Mishra in the 9the century) were outsiders (Vyâsa belonged to the school of
(§ 2) The story of yoga goes back to the Indus-civilization (3th & 2th millenium
B.C.), expanding from the Arab Sea till the first mountains of the Himalayas. Eliade &
others found evidence of early forms of yoga. Carved seals in the south
(Mohenjo-Daro) suggest Siva. Iconographical material only. The literal start of the yoga
system is to be found in the commentaries on the Veda's, especially Katha, Svetâsvatara,
Maitrâyanîya, Îsa, Mundaka, and Mândûkya. Around the time
of the Bhagavad-Gîtâ (i.e. chapters 13 till 40 of the sixth book of the great
epic Mahâbhârata) all various forms of yoga were present (hatha, karma, bhakti,
jñâna, mantra, kriyâ, kundalinî, sahaja, laya, dhyâna, nâda etc.) but a systematic
& synthetic picture was lacking. The Yoga-Sûtra of Patañjali, also called the
'Royal Path' or 'Râja Yoga' offers this, although not in a simple & straightforward
(§ 1) As the reader may have observed, most punctuations necessary for an accurate
transliteration of the Sanskrit-terms are not supported. However, 'Siva', 'Visnu',
'purusa', 'Îsvara', etc. are not written as 'Shiva', 'Vishnu', 'purusha', 'Îshvara',
etc. Important terms are left untranslated, whereas 'samâdhi' is rendered as 'union' and
'samskâra' as 'reactors'.
(§ 2) This work is a technical treatise on yoga, not a popular digest. Most
renderings of this text are naive because they misunderstand the importance of this fact.
Mysticological investigations make it belong to the category of canonical discourses.
Being the 'magnum opus' of a well-established group-identity, the Yoga-Sûtra
initiated an era of yoga in which the variety & the wealth of the past are assimilated
using ideas unlike Sâmkhya. Because of the activity of Patañjali and his school, yoga is
a 'classical' perspective on a reality which radically differs from all realms of
(§ 3) My study of the Yoga-Sûtra dates back over 15 years. My first translation
of this treatise into Dutch was finished in 1985. The critical work of Feuerstein was most
helpful to understand the Sanskrit involved. In 1987 I prepared an English translation
which was gradually superseded by many more translations as my practice & study of
classical yoga made progress. In 1995 a French translation was completed. This helped me
considerably to finalize the English translations of Patañjali's text. This final English
translation focuses on the technical, scientific & methodological rendering of the
text, whereas in the French I allow a more liberal definition of some Sanskrit-expressions
to surface, suggesting broader, more poetical perspectives.
(§ 4) Most technical Sanskrit-terms can not be translated using our everyday vocabulary.
A commentary will be necessary to elucidate the more recondite, abstruse sûtra's. The
rubrics were invented by the translator.
Some terms are left in the original :
(§ 1) "yoga" : root "yuj", to bind together, yoke, union ;
(1.1.) Yoga is an action, not a philosophy, system or theory. Orthodoxy is absent. Only
orthopraxis prevails. In the 'darsana' called 'yoga' different actions leading to the same
goal (union or 'samâdhi') are studied & practiced. Major angles of approach can be
classified as actional (karma), affectional (bhakti) or cognitive (jñâna), but other
classifications exist. Râja yoga succeeded to unfold the underlying mechanisms of
consciousness blocking the restriction of its fluctuations, causing suffering &
absence of union. It offers the panoramic view on the discipline.
(1.2.) Yoga is the binding together of man with the ultimate potential as a result of a
particular practice coupled with a 'smart volition' enabling one to be part of the world
without having thirst for its activities. This union happens as an empirical datum, as
witnessed by the perennial yogic tradition. Yoga is not interested in the nature or the
metaphysics of union. Its aim is to find a technique allowing consciousness to clearly
& permanently distinguish between nature & purusa. Once this absolute dyad is
present in consciousness, union occurs.
(§ 2) "sûtra" : root "sîv", tread, cord, rule, aphorism, girdle of
upper casts, plan ;
Man tries to educate the next generation. At some point a lofty oral tradition vanishes or
is textualized. A tread is created, a rule or standard for future research &
(§ 3) "Îsvara" : root "îs", to own, be master of +
"vara", choices ;
(3.1.) In post-vedic brahmanism, Îsvara, Îsa or Îsana is the personal form of
"Brahman", bi-polar : unpersonal primal cause of existence (nirguna) and
personal creator of all of existence (saguna). Patañjali understands this personal form
as the archetypal yogin, a special purusa. He does not express himself mythologically but
is apparently unable not to witness the influence of this special purusa during
(3.2.) The yogin is not asked to become one with Îsvara. Quite on the contrary. The
thought of becoming has to be discarted. The divine mechanism of being is not purusa. So it
is only suggested that the "cloud of dharma" implies "nirguna Brahman"
: unpersonal, ultimate, pure potential, unmanifested, unfounded foundation of being &
(§ 4) "purusa" : unknown, possible related to a compound meaning 'man' ;
(4.1.) In Brihadâranyaka-Upanisad purusa is approached as 'he who lies in the
citadel of the unmanifest world-ground'. As in many popular folk philosophies purusa is
pictured in Chândogya-Upanisad as a sort of 'indwelling ghost' able to leave the
body of a sleeping person. In later epic texts, purusa is identified with âtman.
(4.2.) Purusa is what is left when the universe (all natural & psychological process)
is negated. Yoga (as in Sâmkhya) classifies both physical & mental states as part of
the energetical realm of the world ("guna" & "prakriti"). No
mental state is beyond the world. So purusa does not think, feel or act. (4.3.) Purusa
describes the existence of the numinous as it occurs in seedless union. The first time a
yogin merges without seed is also the last time s/he is not but a sheer witness of life.
In the 4 unions with seed (cognitive, a-cognitive, subtle, ultra-subtle) it is possible to
experience purusa as the infusion of the unmanifested (the absolute) in the manifested
(the relative). In that consciousness the existence of superior beings & the special
purusa or Îsvara is direct. The yogin who accepts Îsvara as his (her) mentor will
receive intuitive insights allowing consciousness to move beyond union with seed.
(4.4.) Patañjali's synonyms : (sheer) seer, grasper, owner, superior, awareness, other.
(§ 5) "prajñâ" : "pra" + root "jñâ", to know or
intuitive insight ;
Intuition is a truth-bearing direct experience of reality-as-such. As a particular angle
on absolute reality it can never fail 'sui generis'. It operates at the edge between
union-with-seed & union-without-seed (i.e. in ultra-subtle union).
(§ 6) "âtman" : uncertain, possibly related to "tman", vital breath
Equated with purusa in a more recent period.
(§ 7) "karman" : root "kri", to do, action ;
The universe (physical + mental) is a multi-layered living organism. All parts are
interlocked and different strata interpenetrate each other. The universe (prakrt) is
organised. The law of cause & effect is operative throughout. Nothing is lost and no
error is left uncompensated. The reactors make up the active deposit, or residuum of
experience of the individual. They power the mechanism of consciousness and are organised
in configurations, traces, traits. World-experience does not originate the reactor grids
but reinforces them.
(§ 8) "guna" : lit."strand".
The forces operative in the universe are classified. The three gunas are the primary
constituents of the world-ground or Nature. They are used in cosmology & psychology.
Material phenomena & psychomental events (body, emotions & mind) are clearly
distinguished but part of the same category. The Indian schemata anticipate the absolute
distinction between the universe & the 'other'. According to Feuerstein the three
gunas represent existence, discontinuity & continuity (sattva, rajas, tamas).
(§ 9) "samâdhi" : from "sam" + "â" + root
"dhâ", to put ; lit. 'putting together' ;
related to "sampatti" : from "sam" + "â" + root
"pat", to fall ; to fall together, coincide
(9.1.) As soon as the distinction between subject & object of experience is
eliminated, which happens when 'ad perpetuam' seen (Nature) & seer (Self) are
distinguished (so that no erroneous 'superimpositions' occur - cfr. Sankara's
interpretation), destroying the false 'âtman'. This is linked with the 'superior' mode of
detachment, eliminating all thirst for Nature.
(9.2.) The experience of union is structured. Its architecture being defined by the nature
of the seed contemplated ('dhyâna'). If this is 'coarse' (i.e. stemming from the
physical, particularized realm), union is restricted to the first degree of
'union-with-seed' and its negation. If 'subtle' (unparticularized, differentiate or
undifferentiate), the complete flower of union-with-seed may be savoured & beyond.
(9.3.) Firstly, union-with-seed is cognitive, causing contemplative aggregates of
meta-thought (the finer fluctuations of consciousness). Although these 'samadhic
are cogitative, joyous & I-centered, they should be negated (i.e. become
'a-cognitive') for the sake of one's spiritual evolution. If no subtle seeds are
available, no further progress can be made. Secondly, union-with-seed is reflective. The
contemplation of subtle seeds leads beyond cognitive & a-cognitive union to subtle
& ultra-subtle union, the second degree of 'union-with-seed'.
(9.4.) Union-without-seed is the result of the practice of the thought of cessation during
union-with-seed. When subtle seeds are contemplated, ultra-subtle union (the negation of
subtle union) may be attained. The ultimate border of this state (at the edge of
union-without-seed) is very special. This lucid state called 'prajñâ' is truth-bearing
(direct experience of absolute reality), of the nature of a pure flash of insight and of
enormous karmic importance. For if this state is attained, all other reactors are bound,
leading -as soon as this binding of all possible deep-reactions is finished- to
union-without-seed. At this point all suffering has ceased & the yogin needs but to
take one step further to merge with the unmanifested ground of existence. Simultaneous
with this final merging is the dissolution of the body of the yogin.
Short Bibliography :
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Woods, J.H. : The Yoga-system of Patañjali ,
or the Ancient Hindu Doctrine of
Concentration of Mind, embracing :
- the mnemonic rules, called Yoga-Sûtra , of Patañjali (A.D.300 and 500) ;
- the comment, called Yoga-Bhasya , attributed to Veda-Vyâsa (between A.D. 650 -
- the explanation, called Tattva-Vaisaradi , of Vachaspati-Misra (A.D. 800 - 850),
Harvard Oriental Series, vol 17, 1914.
Woods, R. : Understanding Mysticism , Image - New York, 1980.
initiated : 1997 - last update : 05 II 2016
- version n°3 - final version