Who is Patanjali?
by Lisa Ash Drackert
In the opening Ashtanga Yoga Chant, we give credit to the first teacher of Ashtanga Yoga: Patanjali. We chant a ‘Thank You’ for concentrating the wisdom of Yoga into one text by writing The Yoga Sutras. But who was Patanjali and why should we acknowledge him?
Patanjali is the name of the scholar who wrote the seminal text of yoga: The Yoga Sutras. All texts reveal their author; it may help you understand The Yoga Sutras if you understand Patanjali.
‘Pata’ in Sankskrit has two meanings. The first is ‘falling leaves.’ ‘Anjali’ refers to the hand position (mudra) where the palms are joined together at heart center. Together, the name Patanjali signifies receiving the wisdom of the Sutras which is like catching falling leaves of wisdom and offering them to the heart.
The second meaning of ‘pata’ in Sanskrit is ‘serpent.’ Patanjali is depicted as half man and half serpent. The serpent symbol represents the energy of spiritual awakening, which is called Kundalini.
The serpent also represents the mythical birth of Patanjali, who is the human manifestation of a divine snake called Adisesa. According to legend, an experienced yogi named Gonika prayed for a worthy son upon whom she would bestow her teachings. After weeks of fervent prayer, Gonika opened her cupped hands to find a blessing: a small serpent. Adisesa manifested into physical form to experience life as a human and bestow knowledge on humanity. From this story we learn that Patanjali’s task was to bring spiritual enlightenment to earth.
Patanjali sought to end suffering. He drew from earlier philosophical teachings, such as the Upanishads, and then he added spiritual practices which elevate the teachings from mere philosophy to experiential practice. Patanjali saw that a common human experience is suffering, but individuals can develop physical and spiritual disciplines—yoga and meditation, for example—which relieve suffering. Through the study of yoga, a person can end suffering in their own mind. Eventually, when living a yogic lifestyle and seeking union with the True Self, they can end suffering in their community.
This is why Patanjali writes about Ashtanga Yoga, which includes the yamas and the niyamas. These are all principles for living an ethical, just, and compassionate lifestyle. The yamas and the niyamas are help end suffering. They include: non-harming, honesty, non-stealing, moderation, generosity, purity, contentment, discipline, self-awareness, and surrender.
Although scholars have vastly different inferences about when Patanjali lived and wrote The Yoga Sutras, (ranging anywhere from 200 BCE to 200 CE) the experiences Patanjali describes in The Yoga Sutras are relevant today. While the physical human conditions have changed dramatically in recent centuries, emotional human experiences have changed less so. We still experience suffering and frustration as a result of our thoughts and actions. We still desire to calm the mind and transform our thoughts. We still seek transcendent experiences that reveal meaning, love and light in our lives. Patanjali can still be our guide.