Photo: ©Paul Wellman
Yoga Sutra Superstar: Is Patanjali All Hype?
The author of Sinister Yogis, The Alchemical Body and Kiss of the Yogini talks facts, figures and the Yoga Sutra
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Book Review Sinister Yogis
The sublime edifice of that I have been calling “high” Hindu Tantra in these pages has been, in the main, an internalization, an aestheticization, and a semanticization of Kaula [Tantra] practice. It has been the transformation “from a kind of doing to a kind of knowing” –
This transformation, which was effected over a relatively brief period of time, between the tenth and twelfth centuries, especially involved the subordination of the feminine – of the multiple Yoginis, Mothers, and Saktis.
Patañjali’s “classical” definition of “yoga” notwithstanding, many if not most pre-twelfth-century accounts of the practice of “yoga,” going back to the Mahabharata, describe it not as a form of meditative or physical practice, but rather as a battery of techniques for the attainment of siddhis, including out-of-body experience, entering the bodies of others as a means to escaping death or simply to feed on them, invisibility, the power of flight, transmutation, and so on.
from Kiss of the Yogini
Susan Maier-Moul Let’s talk about what you’re working on right now. Are you doing a biography of the Yoga Sutra?
David Gordon White Yeah – it wasn’t a project of mine. I didn’t choose it, I mean, it was pitched to me by my editor at Princeton, the one who edited Tantra in Practice. [A companion volume, Yoga in Practice is coming out middle of next year.]
He’s doing a series of “biographies” of great books, and he asked me to do a biography of the Yoga Sutra (YS).
So I accepted because it sounded like I should. I thought it would be boring, but it turned out to be really exciting.
Susan I have to say I love the concept – it’s like a less obnoxious version of historiography. The idea that a book has its own life story is an important aspect of it as a work that we’re all dealing with.
David What’s most interesting to me, I had this kind of throw away idea I told the editor. I decided I’d count YS manuscripts to get some idea of how important it was, to find out were people reading or writing commentaries on this book.
So I spent the summer reading manuscript catalogs which was unusual. I ended up doing quantitative analysis.
Susan I see – you were counting and analyzing records of all the manuscripts in libraries and collections. Why look at manuscript catalogs? Is it more efficient?
David Because of the climate, of course, manuscripts in South Asia don’t last that long, but with the manuscript catalogs that were published in the late nineteenth century, you can go back another couple of hundred years.
These catalogs classify the philosophies of India under six headings: Yoga, Samkhya, Mimamsa, Nyaya, Vaisesika, and Vedanta.
Susan And this is when things got exciting in the research -
David Yes. By far the fewest represented categories were samkhya and yoga: out of a total of 30,000 or so extant philosophy manuscripts, only 500 are manuscripts of the Yoga Sutra and its commentaries.
Even within the category of “Yoga Philosophy,” there are many more works on hatha yoga than on the YS; and if you look at works on tantric yoga (which are generally classified under the “Tantra” category and not the “Philosophy” category), there are many more of these manuscripts than there are YS manuscripts.
Susan 500 out of 30,000 – and then within that the YS is a small number?! That’s a pretty amazing indictment of claims the YS is central to the practice of yoga.
David The proportions I came up with, based on an careful examination of about fifty catalogues for archives whose holdings represent perhaps 80% of the total number of Indian manuscripts on the six philosophies, were the following:
There were forty times as many manuscripts on Vedanta philosophy as on the Yoga Sutra and its commentaries.
There were thirty-three times as many manuscripts on Nyaya philosophy as on the Yoga Sutras and its commentaries.
In other words, the number of extant YS manuscripts at the end of the nineteenth century was not even within the realm of statistical error, not a blip on the screen.
My conclusion is that by the 18th century no one was rewriting YS manuscripts because no one in India cared about the philosophy of Patanjali.
That goes to what Mark [Singleton] was talking about in the collection he edited with his colleague –
Susan Jean Byrne — you mean their book Yoga in the Modern World – I’m glad you brought that up. That’s a really lovely volume of essays.
David Yeah, it really is. By the 17th century the Yoga Sutra had disappeared from the Indian philosophical landscape. This also explains why Krishnamacharya couldn’t find a yoga expert for his own studies.
So, where does our “yoga tradition” come from? Not the Yoga Sutra.
It’s even open to question as to what importance the YS ever had, even pushing back to 16th century which explains why it would not even be primary yoga philosophy by the time these people were making these catalogs.
Susan I’m a big fan of your cameo in Enlighten Up. It’s really the only reason I watched the movie. You got at least two more sentences than Joseph Alter –
At the beginning of the movie there are all these well known yoga personalities and the film maker, Kate Churchill, asks “Do you have a sense of how old yoga is?”
The answers go in succession:
Cyndi Lee Yeah, yoga’s 5,000 years old.
Gurmukh It was 40,000 years ago that this kundalini yoga started.
Baron Baptiste That’s a good question. I don’t know too much the history.
Judith Lasater Some figures I’ve seen are five thousand years.
Natasha Rizopoulos I think of yoga as being a 2,000 year old practice, but I’m not sure where I got that idea.
Susan I guess there’s something to be said for understatement, but I wish the filmmaker had confronted that – it’s such great material. The movie could have been “On what basis, exactly, are you making these claims? Do you think there’s any possibility you’re misleading the people you’re speaking to?”
David Sure. That’s the way I feel about the Republican party. Are they that stupid or that deceptive?
Tomorrow in part 2 of our Conversation with David Gordon White, David talks about “spirituality” heebee jeebees and what makes the yoga workshop circuit go round and round.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.