Contemporary yoga teachers and gurus have mistakenly made the Yoga Sutra into the ubiquitous foundation of all yoga practice, stretching and extrapolating it into a complete manual for living. Now the man behind the curtain is exposed. White mines the truth from hearsay and stands contemporary yoga beliefs on their head. This remarkable, colorful, and engaging book will rattle a lot of cages and hopefully enlighten the enlighteners. I highly recommend it as required reading for anyone interested in yoga.
—Ganga White, author of Yoga Beyond Belief and founder of the White Lotus Foundation
In the latest offering from The Lives of Great Religious Books series, David Gordon White (Sinister Yogis, Kiss of the Yogis) relates the biography of The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali (pub date: June 25, 2014). Virtually forgotten in India for hundreds of years and maligned when it was first discovered in the west, the Yoga Sutra is now one of the most popular Buddhist and yoga texts in the world and occupies a revered place in popular culture. The story of its rise, fall, and modern-day resurgence is filled with twists and turns and includes some of the most colorful culture brokers in history.
A mere 195 verses in length, the Yoga Sutra is arguably one of the shortest classics in all of world literature. Written in the first centuries of the Common Era in an obscure if not impenetrable language and style, the work rocketed to the status of cultural icon and has been translated into over forty languages in just the past few decades. Its collection of aphorisms is extolled by the yoga establishment as a perennial classic and guide to yoga practice. Yet, as Gordon White demonstrates, the contemporary, cosmopolitan success of the Yoga Sutra belies its rather humble origins.
To begin, the Yoga Sutra was never considered to be the definitive guide to yoga or yoga philosophy in India: over the centuries, other works, such as the Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Vasistha and Yoga Yajnavalkya, were far better known. In fact, until its “discovery” in the early nineteenth century by the British Orientalist Henry Thomas Colebrooke, the Yoga Sutra had lain in nearly complete obscurity for several hundred years.
Since that time, its revival has taken place mainly in Europe and America and in the English language medium. The persons responsible for that revival include an improbable cast of characters and it is their interpretations and (mis)appropriations of the work that are presented here, together with those who wrote during the Yoga Sutra’s heyday, the period between the eighth and thirteenth centuries. They include a Hindu king, a Mughal prince, an Indonesian commentator, a Muslim intellectual, several Jain writers, three German philosophers, a sampling of Indian freedom fighters and reformers, a gaggle of Theosophists, a German member of the SS, numerous Hindu commentators and theologians, and dozens of scholars and modern-day yoga gurus.
In language that is “elegant, erudite, and crystal clear,” according to Joseph S. Alter, White tells the complete “life” story of this enigmatic text. He begins with a tongue in cheek list of dramatis personae and a quick reading of the aphorisms before moving quickly to meatier subjects. In a series of brief, powerful chapters, White complicates our understanding of the tensions between the Yoga Sutra and Islam, revealing that one of its greatest commentators was an eleventh-century Muslim intellectual writing in the court of Mahmud of Ghazni; explains why the Yoga Sutra is known as a work of Hindu philosophy even though it shares more in common with early Buddhist texts; and, perhaps most controversial, shows that many modern day yoga gurus continue to misinterpret the Yoga Sutra’s aphorisms.
The “Yoga Sutra of Patanjali”: A Biography is a magnificent volume. It is both the perfect companion for those who are studying the Yoga Sutra and wish to expand their understanding and a comprehensive introduction for the uninitiated.
About the Author:
David Gordon White is the author of three acclaimed books that trace the history of yoga from its Vedic origins down to the modern day. With this volume, he completes his masterful tableau, demonstrating yet again that the yoga of India’s past in no way resembles the yoga of India (and the world’s) present. It is far more complex and far more interesting.