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.

 Patanjali, courtesy of Bobby Clennell.
Patanjali, courtesy of Bobby Clennell.

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).”

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