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The Yoga-Sūtras, the earliest treatise and most respected Sanskrit text on Yoga, are attributed to a person named Patañjali who may have lived in or around the 2 century BC. The Yoga-Sūtras themselves are written in the extremely terse sūtra style, designed to be transmitted orally in the most concise form possible; the text consists of 194 sūtras, or aphorisms, written in no more than 677 words, a masterpiece of précis typical of this period in Sanskrit literary history. The corollary to the sūtra style of composition is that the Yoga-Sūtras were designed to be held in memory by people who were familiar enough with teachings and practice related to them to understand them clearly.
The other corollary is that, without a direct link to the oral tradition for which they were composed, the Yoga-Sūtras are almost incomprehensible on their own. This is the problem that has been approached several times over the centuries even into modern times by writers attempting to provide commentary to expand the Sūtras out into meaningful texts. As Professor Arthur Berriedale Keith, Regius Professor of Sanskrit at Edinburgh University, observed not wholly inappropriately in his A History of Sanskrit Literature: “It is a confused text which is only intelligible by the aid of the Yoga-bhāşya ascribed to Vyāsa who may or may not have accurately rendered the original sense, very probably moulding it to his own views.”
In A Re-appraisal of Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras, S N Tandon, a Teacher of Vipassana Meditation and a scholar of Sanskrit and Pāli, explores the fact that the Yoga-Sūtras were compiled at a time when the teachings of the Buddha and their practice were very much current in India. With this in mind there are portions of the Yoga-Sūtras which become very clear when correspondences of expressions are examined between the Yoga-Sūtras and the teachings of the Buddha as preserved in the Pāli canon. These correspondences do indeed shed a fresh and very welcome light on the Yoga-Sūtras hitherto adequately provided by neither the Yoga-bhāşya of Vyāsa nor the later sub-commentaries made on that in turn by various writers, such as Vācaspati-Miśra. The reason for this discrepancy is due simply to the historical fact that Vyāsa and his successors lived and wrote in times very remote from the period when the Pāli canon and the practice of its teachings had been current in India; in fact by this time they were to all intents and purposes extinct from the land of their birth.
With this historical backdrop as a starting point S N Tandon guides the reader through the many parities between certain expressions used by Patañjali and expressions occurring in Pāli texts on the practice of Vipassana. The first such expression of Patañjali which Mr Tandon examines is is “viśeşa-darśī”, an exact gloss of the word Vipaśyanā (the Sanskrit root “dŗś” is anomalously conjugated with the different radical component “paś” in actual usage); the word Vipaśyanā is often glossed as: viśeşeņa paśyatīti vipaśyanā = “when one perceives in a special way, this is Vipaśyanā”. By the same token, “viśeşa-darśī” can now be understood to have the sense "a person who perceives (reality) in a special way".
After surveying correspondences between the Yoga-Sūtras and the teachings of the Buddha, Mr Tandon also examines areas where there are discrepancies between the two; after all, though living and practising while the teachings of the Buddha were still current, Patañjali was not actually teaching exactly the same path.
Another aspect of this is the observation that has sometimes been made that the teachings of the Yoga-Sūtras only go so far: for the balance of teachings which are necessary in order to attain the final goal of full liberation it is necessary to look elsewhere. This balance is provided by the teachings of the Buddha and Mr Tandon closes his study with an examination of those teachings which are missing from the Yoga-Sūtras and of their importance in the path towards complete liberation.
The work ends aptly with the full text of Patañjali’s Yoga-Sūtras in both Devanāgarī script and romanised transcription, and a Bibliography.
- Mode of Transliteration
- SECTION I: Matters consistent with the Buddha’s Teaching:
- SECTION II: Matters inconsistent with the Buddha’s Teaching
- SECTION III: Supernormal Powers
- SECTION IV: Goal Realisation
- SECTION V: The Taste of the Pudding is in the Eating
- ANNEXURE: Sampajañña
- APPENDIX: Patañjali’s Yoga-Sūtras