Date: 28 Feb 2022
Patanjali is one of the central figures in all yoga traditions. Well-documented evidence on his life does not
exist but he possibly lived in the 2nd century BC. His “Yoga Sutra” has been a near inviolable foundation
of yoga for several centuries. Yoga enthusiasts worldwide, especially the ones who are familiar with the
asana system propagated by the disciplines of T Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), know of Patanjali. In fact,
lessons in the Pattabhi Jois yoga system often start with the following Sanskrit salutation to him:
The literal meaning of this verse is as follows: “I pay homage to that foremost teacher Patanjali who removed
impurities of mind, speech (language), and body through yoga, grammar, and medical science”.
The salutation referred to above identifies Patanjali as “Muni” and not as “Rshi”. So, the verse effectively
states that Patanjali was not a sage but a teacher who possibly had an influential ashram where students
received rigorous training in linguistics, medical sciences, and yoga. The author of “Yoga Sutra” was
clearly a master of both yoga and linguistics because this a highly terse text comprising only 196 verses
composed with an astonishing mastery of grammar and linguistics. This raises the following questions:
Why did Patanjali limit himself to only 196 verses? Did he compose a more detailed exposition of yoga as well?
If Patanjali did compose such a detailed treatise on yoga, it has certainly been lost for centuries now. The
fact that it is not referred to by most of the existing classics on yoga suggests that if he did compose a
more detailed treatise, it did not merit a citation. Thankfully though, Al Biruni’s celebrated book “India”,
published in two volumes by Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co. in 1910, proves the exact opposite. In “India
(Vol. 1)”, Al Biruni has quoted extensively from a “Book of Patanjali” and, judging by those quotations,
that book certainly gave a detailed exposition of Patanjali’s yoga philosophy. It should be noted that Al
Biruni (973-1050) was a famous Iranian/Persian scholar who studied India and accompanied Mahmood of
Ghazni (971-1030) on some of his raids of India. So, his testimony carries a significant amount of weight.
In his book, Al Biruni has also referred to Kapil, Gaudapadacharya, Buddha, Aristotle, and Plato. He has
praised Advaita Vedanta and has quoted extensively from Bhagavad Gita – to him, Bhagavad Gita was the
most influential philosophical book produced by India.
As per Al Biruni, the “Book of Patanjali” was a philosophical dialogue between a master and his pupil. In
other words, it was an Upanishad. So, we will refer to it as the “Patanjali’s Lost Upanishad”. Let us now
see what that book had to say. The book appears to have advocated Sankhya Yoga. That tallies well with what the tradition says because
as per the tradition, and as per “Yoga Sutra”, Patanjali believed in Sakhya Yoga. Interestingly, this book
recommended use of chemical substances/stimulants as a prop! This tallies well with our above-mentioned
speculation, viz., medical sciences were taught in Patanjali’s ashram. A few quotations from that book, as reported by Al Biruni, are as follows.
Quotation 1 – Karma and Its Effect:
The soul, being on all sides tied to ignorance, which is the cause of its being fettered, is like rice in its cover. As long as it is there, it is capable of growing and ripening in the transition stages between being born and giving birth itself. But if the cover is taken off the rice, it ceases to develop in this way, and becomes stationary. The retribution of the soul depends on the various kinds of creatures through which it wanders, upon the extent of life, whether it be long or short, and upon the particular kind of its happiness, be it scanty or ample.
The pupil asks: “What is the condition of the spirit when it has a claim to a recompense or has committed a crime, and is then entangled in a kind of new birth either in order to receive bliss or to be punished?”
The master says: “It migrates according to what it has previously done, fluctuating between happiness and misfortune, and alternately experiencing pain or pleasure.”
The pupil asks: “If a man commits something which necessitates a retribution for him in a different shape from that in which he has committed the thing, and if between both stages there is a great interval of time and the matter is forgotten, what then?”
– An excerpt from Patanjali’s Yoga Upanishad as recounted by Al Biruni
The master answers: “It is the nature of action to adhere to the spirit, for action is its product, whilst the body is only an instrument for it. Forgetting does not apply to spiritual matters, for they lie outside of time, with the nature of which the notions of long and short duration are necessarily connected. Action, by adhering to the spirit, frames its nature and character into a condition similar to that one into which the soul will enter on its next migration. The soul in its purity knows this, thinks of it, and does not forget it; but the light of the soul is covered by the turbid nature of the body as long as it is connected with the body. Then the soul is like a man who remembers a thing which he once knew, but then forgot in consequence of insanity or an illness or some intoxication which overpowered his mind. Do you not observe that little children are in high spirits when people wish them a long life, and are sorry when people imprecate upon them a speedy death? And what would the one thing or the other signify to them, if they had not tasted the sweetness of life and experienced the bitterness of death in former generations through which they had been migrating to undergo the due course of retribution?”
Quotation 2 – Siddhis (superpowers):
– An excerpt from Patanjali’s Yoga Upanishad as recounted by Al Biruni
The author of the book of Patanjali says: “The concentration of thought on the unity of God induces man to notice something besides that with which he is occupied. He who wants God, wants the good for the whole creation without a single exception for any reason whatever; but he who occupies himself exclusively with his own self, will for its benefit neither inhale, breathe, nor exhale it (referred to by Patanjali as “shvaas” and “prashvaas”). When a man attains to this degree, his spiritual power prevails over his bodily power, and then he is gifted with the faculty of doing eight different things by which detachment is realised; for a man can only dispense with that which he is able to do, not with that which is outside his grasp. These eight things are:
1. The faculty in man of making his body so thin that it becomes invisible to the eyes.
2. The faculty of making the body so light that it is indifferent to him whether he treads on thorns or mud or sand.
3. The faculty of making his body so big that it appears in a terrifying miraculous shape.
4. The faculty of realising every wish.
5. The faculty of knowing whatever he wishes.
6. The faculty of becoming the ruler of whatever religious community he desires.
7. That those over whom he rules are humble and obedient to him.
8. That all distances between a man and any faraway place vanish.”
Quotation 3 – On moksha (liberation) and siddis (superpowers)
Patanjali says: “If a man has the faculty to perform these things, he can dispense with them, and will reach the goal by degrees, passing through several stages:
1. The knowledge of things as to their names and qualities and distinctions, which, however, does not yet afford the knowledge of definitions.
2. Such a knowledge of things as proceeds as far as the definitions by which particulars are classed under the category of universals, but regarding which a man must still practise distinction.
3. This distinction (viveka) disappears, and man comprehends things at once as a whole, but within time.
4. This kind of knowledge is raised above time, and he who has it can dispense with names and epithets, which are only instruments of human imperfection. In this stage the intellectus and the intelligens unite with the intellectum, so as to be one and the same thing.”– An excerpt from Patanjali’s Yoga Upanishad as quoted by Al Biruni (Reference )
Quotation 4 – The final stage of yoga realization
Therefore, in the end of the book of Patanjali, after the pupil has asked about the nature of liberation, the master says: “If you wish, say — Liberation is the cessation of the functions of the three forces, and their returning to that home whence they had come. Or if you wish, say — It is the return of the soul as a knowing being into its own nature.”– Concluding text of Patanjali’s Lost Upanishad as quoted by Al Biruni (Reference )
It may be verified that these four quotations expound certain verses from “Yoga Sutra” and Quotation 4
is a re-statement of the final three verses of “Yoga Sutra”. This supports our assertion that “Patanjali’s
Lost Upanishad” was written by the same school of thought that produced Patanjali’s “Yoga Sutra”.
It is a pity that, today, we do not have access to this book which made a markedly positive impression on
such an eminent scholar as of Al Biruni’s stature. It is possible that the book got destroyed in the attacks
of the invaders. But a silver lining is that Al Biruni might have had this book translated in Persian. In that
case, a slim possibility remains that the book survives somewhere in the rich treasure of Persian books
scattered across the globe.
- BKS Iyengar (1996), “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”. Thorsons, London, UK, 1996.
- E Sachau (1910), “Al Biruni’s India – Vol 1 & Vol 2”. Kegal Paul, Trench & Trubner & Co., London, UK, 1910.