For the last several years I have been participating in a Yoga Sūtra a group-discussion that led me to study the Yoga Sutra (YS) with Vyāsa’s commentary, with the vivraṇa b by Saṇkarācārya, with the ṭīkā c by Vācaspati Miśra, and with an independent commentary by a 20th century yogin, Sadāśivabrhamendra. 1-6
The Bhagavadgītā (BG) 7, 8 is a set of about 800 verses in 18 chapters written by Vyāsa. I studied this text at the āśrama-s dedicated to Vedānta d in India and California. Now I am intrigued by its similaritiesto the YS on many levels. This made me wonder if the BG was intended to be an elaboration of the YS. However, I found no publication comparing these two well-known works.
I follow the traditional belief that the author of the commentary to the YS 9 and the BG are one and the same. I am well aware of the debate as to whether the YS commentator Vyāsa and the author of the BG are two different persons living at different times but having the same name. Some even believe Patañjali himself wrote this YS commentary though it bears Vyāsa’s name.
Differences between the two works, the YS and the BG
Patañjali’s work is known by its title Yogasūtra (YS). It is technically classified as Yogadarśana e, yoga philosophy, in contrast to the rarely available and scarcely known philosophySāṇkhyadarśna of Kapila 10 and the more widely known summarization of this system by Īśvarakṛṣṇa in the Sāṇkhyakārikā 11 Though the YS has its moorings in the more ancient Sāṇkhya system, it is treated as a separate philosophical system since the concept of Īśvara is found in the YS by Patañjali but not mentioned in the earlier Sāṇkhya philosophy. The concept of Īśvara f is Patanjali’s own.
Note that the ritual section of the Vedas g also does not have an Īśvara, “God” since it is assumed that karma h, actions themselves produce the results here and hereafter. From the modern idea of God, one can say that that both Sāṇkhya and vedic ritualism are “Godless!” According to Patañjali, however, Īśvara is just another Puruṣa, like most of us, Puruṣas. The uniqueness or what makes this Īśvara special is that He h is free from any action or the result of an action; in short one who has no karma-bound limitations (YS 1:24). But, there is no description of who this special puruṣa is, not his qualities and abilities, as is commonly understood in theologies.
Vyāsa’s BG, on the other hand, is not considered an independent darśana but is folded into Vedāntadarśana, vedānta philosophy. Unlike Patañjali, he did not strike an independent path propounding any new system of thought. He used the pretext of writing an account of his descendants’ families engaging in a fratricidal war in a book of 100,000 verses called Mahābhārataa in which the BG is a subsection. His work is called a smṛti j in contrast to vedas, the śruti k. The tradition considers the smṛti to be an elaboration of the rather terse śruti.
Typically, due to the fact that the foundation of the yoga system is the Sankhya, the Sāṇkhya-Yoga is considered as one integrated philosophical system. This system is grounded on the fundamental duality of prakṛti l, matter, and puruṣa m, the sentience, the former is the one undergoing changes to form the phenomenal world while the latter can be many. Patañjali’s new idea is that one of these innumerable puruṣa-s is Īśvara, a special one (YS 1:24). He simply states that by mere repetition of his name, praṇava, Om and reflecting on its meaning one can gain samādhi (YS 1:23).
In contrast, the vedānta idea of Īśvara with qualities such as omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, has powers as the giver of the results of actions as well as having over lordship of the results; Patañjali has no such clear postulations. Vyāsa, on the other hand, follows the vedānta tradition – Īśvara with qualities, devoting an entire chapter in BG describing the cosmic form of Īśvara (BG, Ch. 11). The BG has been interpreted by three great propounders of vedānta philosophies – advaita, viśiṣṭhādvaita and dvaita n.
At this point I have to point out my bias, both as a scientist schooled in hard sciences and as one who is immersed in advaita philosophy. It is hard for me to subscribe to the validity of absolute demarcation, namely maintaining duality of prakṛti and puruṣa as fundamental realities. In science, since the last century, what was once considered to be fundamentally different – wave-particle duality, matter-energy duality, nuclear particles duality – all only led to an existing fundamental non-duality. So, from the advaita-vedānta view of the BG there is a big conceptual, perhaps irreconcilable difference with the Sāṇkhya-Yoga system. But, if I look at the same BG with the lens of the Yogasūtras, I do find that many portions of this text appear to be an elaboration of the cryptic sūtra style work of Patañjali.
There is but one more major difference between YS and BG. Since Patañjali’s philosophy is built on the foundation of the Sāṇkhya system, he does not dwell into the “vision” of the latter, namely ‘“you, the seeker, are, indeed, the puruṣa”, but he states that ignorance of this is responsible for your present condition. So, the solution is not “doing something” but knowing who you are. This is stated at a few places in the YS, but this message is not even appreciated by many a serious student of Patañjali!
One can understand this since almost all those who come to study the YS are serious āsana practitioners having practiced for years. Being born and raised in the current culture of “don’t just sit there, do something”, they think that doing something is meditation, and that this would give them kaivalya which yogins would call samadhi. Sadly, as we will see later in this post, the explicit statements in the YS about ignorance being the cause for the current human condition is missed. Any amount of practice of meditation, postures and other actions cannot remove this ignorance. No ignorance can be removed by a physical or mental action; it is only removed by knowing one’s true nature. I am reminded of my vedānta teacher’s comment, ‘apne āp kaisa hoga – by itself how can it happen (meaning removal of ignorance).’
The prime focus of the YS is how to fix up the mind. Thus, it is rightly called a “practice manual”, that is, a book which completely deals with the “way” never explicitly discussing the “vision”. As I mentioned, no amount of practice can grind out avidyā, ignorance. This is clearly stated by Patañjali himself in Sādhanapāda, the second chapter on practice.
For those students of the YS 9 who may look at askance, one just has to examinethe foundation of Sāṇkhya on which Patañjali builds the structure of yoga. The well-known Sāṇkhya work, Sāṇkhyakārikā by Īśvarakṛṣṇa starts his work with the opening statement:
For total elimination of three-fold pain (have a) desire to know. (Sāṇkhyakārikā1:1)
Thus despite Patañjali’s primary focus, as mentioned earlier is yoga, he clearly states the need for gaining this knowledge to remove ignorance, the cause of the seeker’s present condition. In short the ‘way’ is necessary but not sufficient, one has to know, that is one has to gain a clear unshakable ‘vision’.
Thus in this second chapter of YS, called Practice, he lists the five afflictions starting with avidyā, ignorance:
Five afflictions are ignorance, ego, likes, dislikes and clinging to life (YS 2:3)
He adds the fact that this ignorance (of the true nature of the seeker to be none other than puruṣa) is the root cause, the ground on which the remaining four afflictions manifest to varying degrees:
Ignorance is the place for the rest (of afflictions) to be dormant, weak, intermittent or fully manifest (YS 2:4)
Later, in the same chapter he states that the prime cause is ignorance and the need for clear unshakable knowledge as the cause for its removal. This is what I call ‘Vision’.
The cause for this is ignorance (YS 2:24)
The way of destruction of this (ignorance) is clear discriminative knowledge
(between prakṛti and puruṣa ) (YS 2:26).
Now to similarities between YS and the BG
Though this is the primary focus for a series of posts, here are the similarities between the two works:
- As a sūtra text, the YS has to fulfill the criteria of a sūtra – short, clear, pithy and multidimensional. This is true of many a classic sūtra work, such as those by Pāṇini, Jaimini and Vyâsa.
- Thus, any sūtra work needs a commentator as well as sub-commentators.
- Independent works centered on sūtra works also are necessary and many such works do exist and not just for Patañjali’s YS.
- Based on my understanding of both Patañjali’s YS and the BG, I think that many of the words used in the YS gain immediacy to the seeker by the study of the BG.
- Some typical examples are Īśvara, abhyāsa, the manifestation of the three guṇas of sattva, rajas and tamas, prakṛti and puruṣa and the marks of a yogin who has gained this “vision” and is able to maintain this “vision’”of the Sāṅkya by following yoga practice. These are all elaborated in detail in the BG.
We will focus on similarities between the two works in future posts, especially those that appear to be an elaboration of the YS as well as Vyāsa’s own commentary to the YS of Patañjali.
Please refer to my previous post for “way’” and ‘“vision’’, terms
originally used in a few books on Vajrayana buddhism,
but I have used these words in my blog post
My grateful thanks to my friend, Chris Washburn, a Yoga teacher with good knowledge of both Sanskrit and advaita-vedanta for her valuable suggestions and editing the material.
Glossary of some Sanskrit terms used in this post.
(Note: I added the glossary to explain some Sanskrit terms that may not be familiar to many who do not know Sanskrit. I used to tell my vedanta students, “Sanskrit is a foreign language to most Indians as well”! Also, the etymological meaning and common meanings are some times different. The former gives one better insight into language structure. I hope readers find this useful. I am using what is called the substantive form of the word in this blog as is customary in writing using many languages. The grammatically correct forms are used in actual quotes in the blog such as the sūtras.)
a Sūtra: derived from the verb sūtr meaning to tie, to thread by adding a
suffix a to form the noun. The word, thus, means a thread, that which ties
things together. It means ‘a short, concise technical sentence’ translated
as aphorism. This style of writing is usually short, clear, pithy and
multidimensional. Because of this, one needs commentaries to explain
the intent of the author. Incidentally, the Sanskrit word for commentary
is bhāṣya, derived from the verb bhāṣ, to talk about, to describe formed
by adding the suffix ya yielding the word meaning ‘that which needs to
be explained – an explanation.
b Vivaraṇa: derived from the verb vṛ with prefix vi, meaning to explain
formed by adding the suffix ‘ana’ to make the noun. The word, thus
means an explanation. Typically the commentary explains an aphorism.
Even this commentary needs further elaboration which is usually done
by a different author. sSuch works are called vivaraṇa, tīkā, tippaṇi, vṛtti,
c Tīkā: derived from the verb ṭīk meaning to resort to formed by adding the
suffixes a and ā to make the noun. This word also means an explanation.
Though all these terms mean explanation in English, there are many
subtle differences. They are too technical to explain and, thus, not
germane to this post.
d Vedānta: this is a compound of two words, veda and anta. Veda, derived
from the verb vid, to know with suffix a to form the noun meaning
knowledge. In context, this also means a book of knowledge which
applies here to the scriptures called the four vedas – ṛk, yajus, sāma and
atharvaṇa. Anta means end, thus, the compound means end portion of
the vedas. These are also known as Upaniṣads.
e darśana: from the verb dṛś to see with the suffix ana (ref. Vivaraṇa), the
noun form meaning vision. This word is usually translated as philosophy.
Thus, one has the compounds Sāṅkhyadarśana, yogadarśana, vedānta-
darśana, advaitadarśana and so on.
f Īśvara: from the verb īś to rule, have overlordship with the suffix vara
forming the noun meaning One who has overlordship, equivalent to the
word The Lord referring to God in English.
g Veda: Refer to vedānta defined earlier.
h Gender in Sanskrit: From the foregoing it is clear that words are formed
by addition of suffixes to verbs. These suffixes define the gender of the
word, hence it is said that the gender is formal in Sanskrit. It is thus more
akin to languages other than English. Some of the suffixes define the
gender of the noun formed, still it need not be factual, namely denoting
the sex of the object. Thus words like Īśvara, puruṣa are masculine while
prkṛti, śakti, śruti, ahimsā are feminine.
j Śruti: derived from the verb śru to hear with the suffix ti to form the noun
meaning ‘that which is heard’. In the tradition this applies to the four
vedas, also known as scriptures.
k Smṛti: similar to śruti, this is derived from the verb smṛ to remember.
Traditionally this refers toany sacred work written by a person. Well
known examples are manusmṛti, epics such as Rāmāyaṇa, Mahābhārata
and mythologies as Bhāgavatam.
l Prakṛti: derived from the verb kṛ to do with the prefix pra and suffix ti. In
Sāṅkhya-yoga as well as in vedānta this refers to unmodified, also called
primordial matter in the unmanifest stage, that is, before creation. In
grammar this refers to an unmodified form such as any verb before
the addition of any suffx. Creation is brought about by transformation of
this prakṛti to vikṛti, yielding all animate beings and inanimate things.
m Puruṣa: This is an irregularly formed word from Purin as prefix and śī
the verb meaning to reside in with suffix a. In Sāṅkhya-yoga as well as in
vedānta this refers to the ‘soul’, the indweller in all living beings, though
usually it refers to human beings. In both systems it also means the
unchanging, quality-less awareness ever present but not known to be
distinct from and other than prakṛti. This ignorance of one’s true nature
is the result of human suffering.
n dvaita, viśiṣṭādvita and advaita: These represent three ways of
interpretation of vedānta, respectively propounded by three masters,
Madhva, Rāmānuja and Śaṅkara (and a few other masters before him as
well). The most easily understandable and easily appreciated one
is dvaita since it is the basis of almost all current day theologies including
the ancient Sāṅkhya-yoga.
dvaita: a compound of dvidhā, twofold and verb ī to go, know, perceive,
cognize, be aware of, and the suffix ta. Etymologlically it can mean ‘taken
as / known as / perceived as / cognized as two. Two does not mean only
two – it means with reference to you, there is “other”; thus you
and the other form two. The other can be God, this world, your spouse,
and so on. Thus those who subscribe to this theology as the reality are
convinced that God is God, You are you and one can never be the other.
viśiṣṭādvita: derived in a similar way except it is a compound of viśiṣṭa
usually translated as ‘qualified’ and advaita. The prefix a, called negative
particle in grammar gives the opposite meaning of the word to which it is
attached (similar to typical, atypical; thiest, astheist). Thus advaita means
non-dual, the philosophy of advaita is unfortunately wrongly translated
in many authoritative books as monism! As a compound, viśiṣṭādvita is
qualified non-duality, meaning there is some qualifier – that you are
almost but not same as God.
advaita: As described, this means non-dual, that is, in reality you and God
are not different in reality. It is only apparently different since the
concept (or notion) of I and concept of God are both conditioned by
some qualities. Thus the qualities attached to you are limited in terms of
knowledge, power, and time (alive between date of birth and date of
death). Similarly we attach qualities of being ‘The Lord’, Creator,
Sustainer, Destroyer, One in control of our destiny (karma), One who
blesses us and so on. A twentieth century sage, Ramana Maharshi puts it
succinctly thus in Upadeśasāram: ‘The difference between you (jīva) and
God (Īśa) is due to costumes; drop the constume, you see the Truth of
yourself’. Of course, it is not that easy as we the long-time students of
advaita-vedānta know only too well, the reason being our minds having a
strangle hold to our conviction that we are this body and the mind, all the
philosophy is nice to listen and or teach! And, to be in a position to see
what he says we need to prepare the mind to rid of its likes and dislikes –
this is the whole thrust of Patañjali’s and Vyāsa’s works.
1 Yogasūtrabhaṣyavivaraṇa of Śaṅkara, Vol1-4, T. S. Rukamni, Munshiram
Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd. 3rd Edition 2010 (Has Devanāgarī text
and English translation of the sūtra, the commentary and the vivraṇa)
2 Śaṅkara on the Yogasūtras, Trevor Leggett, Motilal Banarsidas Publishers
Private Ltd., Delhi, First Indian Edition, 1992 (All in English)
3 The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, With insights from the traditional
commentators, Edwin F. Bryant, North Point Press, New York, 2009
(Sūtras in Devanāgarī, English transliteration, Meaning of sūtras in
English and Bryant’s comments)
4 Light on the Yogasūtras of Patañjali, B. K. S. Iyengar, Harper Element,
2013 (Sūtras in Devanāgarī, English transliteration, word for word
meaning, meaning the sūtras in English and Iyengar’s comments)
5 Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras with the commentary of Vyāsa and the gloss of
Vācaspati Miśra by Rāma Prasāda, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers
Pvt. Ltd. 2005 (Has Devanāgarī text and English translation of the sūtra,
word for word meaning, Vyāsa’s commentary in Devanāgarī with English
translation, and the gloss only in English)
6 Yogasūtram, Śrī Sadāśivendrasarasvatīkṛta Yogasudhākaropetam, First
Edition, 1992,The Samskrit Education Society, Madra – 600 004 (In Sanskrit
only. Available as a PDF download)
7 Srīmad BhagavadGītā Bhāṣya of Śrī Śaṅkarācārya, Translation by Dr. A. G.
Krishna Warrier, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras-600004, India (Has
Devanāgarī text and English translation of both the verse and Bhāṣya, the
8 Shrimad Bhagavad Gita, Swami Swarupananda, Advaita Ashram,
Calcutta-14, India (Has Devanāgarī text and English translation of every
word of the verse in Devanāgarī with meaning in English and the verse
meaning in English – best for easy reference)
9 Patañjali Yoga Sutras, Swami Prabhavananda, Sri Ramakrishna Math,
Mylapore, Madras 600004, India (Has Devanāgarī text of the sūtra and
English translation with a short comment by the author – best for easy
10 The Sānkhya Aphorisms of Kapila, by James Robert Ballantyne Kapila
(Published by Forgotten books.org, Copyright 2013, available for PDF
download, paperback copy can be purchased from amazon.com)
11 Samkhya Karika with Gaudapadacarya Bhashya by Brhamasirhi
Vishwatma Bawra, compiled and edited by William F. Milcetich,
Brahmarishi Yoga Publications, 2012 (Text in English Transliteration,
Commentary and comments by Bawra. Some out of print books available
for PDF download and Digitized by Google Books, printed paper back
copy can be purchased)