The Yoga Sutras are one of the most important texts in yoga, and chances are, you’ve come across a few sutras in your yoga classes or in discussions with fellow yogis. A collection of 196 sutras (which are aphorisms) compiled around 400 CE, the Yoga Sutras are a foundational text for Ashtanga yoga and are built around principles, like the Five Yamas, that are meant to guide a person on their journey through life. Patanjali, the attributed author, is known to have compiled sutras referencing older yogic traditions materials, making their production a codifying moment for yoga.
To the new yogi, navigating the sutras can be a bit of a challenge and deciphering the meaning behind them can be even harder. What’s more, the author of the works, Patanjali, seems to have many works attributed to him (such as Mahabhasya and works in Ayurveda). These works range over hundreds of years, which can cause confusion with the new yogi: Was Patanjali a real person? Or is it a name meant to symbolize something more?
The Patanjali of the Mahabhasya
If you come across the text of the Mahabhasya in your searches of Patanjali, you may be surprised with the lack of focus on yoga, and instead, the focus on grammar. That’s because the author is different from the Patanjali of the Yoga Sutras, and we know this primarily because of the reference to the siege of the town of Saketa by the Greeks, which occurred around 120 BC. This work has been said to represent the tradition of Indian language at its highest form, and for any linguist, the it’s a unique piece due to its focus not so much on syntax, but on the etymology behind the language.
For yogis, you’ll likely find this text less useful than you’d like, though it does engage with philosophical underpinnings in language – the relation between words and their meanings, and the metaphysical motivations behinds words.
The Patanjali of the Yoga Sutras
The Patanjali of the Yoga Sutras, written some 500 years after the Mahabhasya, is arguably a different person, and is the Patanjali referred to when we speak about yoga. What’s more, this Patanjali is revered in more mythic terms. While the Patanjali of the Mahabhasya is considered to have had undergone an incantation by the serpent Śesa, blessed by Shiva with the knowledge to write the text, the Patanjali of the Yoga Sutras has been deified to a greater extent. According to some legends, he was thought to be an incarnation of the serpent Ananta, the source of all wisdom. Some, who see the Patanjali of both texts as one in the same, combine the relations to Ananta and Śesa. In both cases, the serpents are often depicted as serving as the couch or seat for the god Vishnu (see article picture).
A Note on Eastern Historical Practice
So why is there a discrepancy in the two people, both named Patanjali? It may be an understanding influenced by a piece of writing by Bhartrhari (5th century). A Sanskrit author and grammarian himself, Bhartrhari spoke of an expert in yoga, medicine and grammar. However, this person is not named.
A separate explanation for the vagueness is that traditionally, eastern schools of thought avoided specific dates and people because “history” was not so much about factual evidences laid out in a timeline, but rather concerned the lessons and teachings that could be learned from them. People could easily apply a text to their life, relating it to the modern figures rather than thinking strictly in terms of the past. Consider how the Bhagavad Gita is written with a sense of dated history, but is actually treated as a dialogue. When you consider a third lore about Patanjali, which argues that he was born to Atri and his wife Anasuya and puts his birth to the time of the creation by Brahma, it may be that the name Patanjali may have been used on such foundational texts because of the significance the name carries; it is timeless.