Discipline of Freedom
The Yoga Sutra Attributed to Patanjali
Translated from the Sanskrit by Barbara Stoler Miller
University of California Press, 1996.
114 pp., $17.95 (cloth)
Yoga and Buddha are probably the two best-known and most-used words to make the passage from India. They are what I sometimes think of as salmon-leaping words: words that have made the leap from one culture to another without translation. Or to put it another way, by resisting translation, such words provide a new word—and thus a new meaning, and even a new way of life—for the cultural stream they now swim and spawn in. Dharma is another example, as are satori and koan.
Yoga is an ancient and complex term. It derives from the Indo-European root that gives us the English “yoke,” and this has the broad meaning of any spiritual discipline that yokes or joins two poles—mind and body, meditator and object of meditation, devotee and the object of devotion. Thus in India we read of Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu yoga.
Yoga is also the name given to one of the six classicalsastras, or schools, of Indian philosophy. The Yoga Sutraof Patanjali is considered the major text of this school. It is now dated from around the third century C.E., and it sums up a complex philosophical system, including ethical, physical, and contemplative disciplines, in 195 terse aphorisms. A whole subliterature of commentary and exegesis has grown up around this text, sometimes elucidating and sometimes obscuring its meaning. Barbara Stoler Miller’s introduction and commentary to this new translation is, in a sense, part of this tradition, and certainly falls on the side of elucidation. Miller was a distinguished professor of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures at Barnard College until her death in 1993 and is probably best known for her translation of the Bhagavad Gita.
Of particular interest is Miller’s close attention to the relationship between Buddhism and the Yoga school. As Miller points out in her commentary, a fair number of the eight limbs of Patanjali’s path—namely, moral principles and observances, posture, breath control, withdrawal of the senses, concentration, meditation, and pure contemplation—correspond to the Eightfold Path of the Buddha. In her words, “right conduct encompasses moral principles and observances, right mindfulness includes breath control and withdrawal of the senses, and right contemplation is equivalent to pure contemplation (samadhi).”
There are other striking parallels. The first limb of Patanjali’s path, the moral principles, includes ahimsa(nonviolence), truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy, and the absence of greed. Patanjali’s fivefold power of faith, heroic energy, mindfulness, contemplative calm, and wisdom is found also in the Pali Majjhima Nikaya. In fact, the very definition of yoga, as given in the first sutra—“Yoga is the cessation of the turnings of thought”—has a distinctly Buddhist ring to it. And this summation by no means exhausts the examples cited by Miller.
Just how much of Patanjali’s path is direct borrowing remains unclear. Miller finds “the most ancient sustained expression of yogic ideasï¿½in the early sermons of the Buddha” (that is, the sixth century B.C.) However, the common elements of yoga philosophy and practices may very likely predate both the Buddha and Patanjali and spring from what Miller calls “a common store of contemplative practices that was incorporated into Buddhism and developed there.”
It would be wrong, however, to conclude that the yoga sastras and the buddha-dharma were identical. TheYoga Sutra seems to place more emphasis on ascetic practices, for one thing. But the main difference is a philosophical one. Patanjali’s view is based on the Sankhya school’s dualistic distinction between prakriti(the material world) and purusa (spirit). “Patanjali,” writes Miller, “appears to be countering the Buddhist idealists, who hold that nothing exists in the absence of a knowing subject.” This is the most abstruse part of Patanjali’s philosophy, and though Miller does her best to explicate it clearly, it will be rough going for readers unfamiliar with the subject.
Most striking, however, is what is not in the Yoga Sutra. There is no mention of the absolute Brahman, essential to the Vedanta tradition which has been so influential in the West. Nor is there any mention of karma yoga, or of omniscient avatars such as Krishna, which are found in the earlier Bhagavad Gita, nor of bhakti yoga (the yoga of devotion), with one exception—“the Lord of Yoga, a distinct form of spirit… the teacher of even the ancient teachers,” whose worship can cause “cessation of thought” and who is often identified as Shiva. Most surprising of all, however, is the lack of attention paid to the asanas, the physical postures and exercises by which yoga is most commonly known and practiced in the West.
Only one limb out of Patanjali’s eight mentions asana: “The posture of yoga is steady and easy./ It is realized by relaxing one’s effort and resting like the cosmic serpent on the waters of infinity./ Then one is unconstrained by opposing dualities.” Though Patanjali does not describe a specific posture, Miller suggests that he is referring to “the lotus position [which] has become, over time, the paradigm of all yogic postures,” providing yet another correspondence with Buddhist practice.
The great variety of asanas, developed later in hatha yoga, do not appear either in Patanjali’s text or in Buddhist practice. The development of hatha yoga, which has eclipsed so much of the Yoga Sutra to become the de facto popularized form of yoga in the West, is a fascinating study but beyond the scope of this review. Suffice it to say that hatha yoga seems to have reached a high level of sophistication in the medieval Tantric period, when it was probably absorbed by Tantric Buddhists. In fact, Gorakhnath, the founder of the Kanphata Yogis, is claimed by Tantric Hindus and Buddhists alike.
Yoga practices seem to have been transmitted from India to Tibet, where physical yoga postures andpranayama were not taught openly but reserved for advanced practitioners in retreat settings. American Buddhists of all schools tend to lack a physical component of practice, whereas American yoga practitioners tend to give the meditative aspects of yoga short shrift.
Given the tangled and still obscure history of yoga and Buddhism, one would hope that in the West these two ancient and venerable paths will once again encounter each other and enter a dialogue that will enrich practitioners of both. Barbara Stoler Miller’s lucid translation and commentary to the Yoga Sutra—which is sadly her last book—stands as a most valuable contribution to this possibility.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.