The very name ‘The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’ carries with it a quintessential mystique. Once, a class participant even asked me “Who is Patanjali – is he some sort of Hindu God?” I answered that he was a real person, a sage actually, who later became immortalized by creating a unique philosophical system. My answer seemed satisfactory at the moment, but I would learn that more precise answers to this most basic of questions are currently the stuff of debate among both ancient and contemporary scholars alike. The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali – A Biography marvelously recounts the drama of the Sutras’ rise, rebranding, relegation, and ultimate renaissance. I would enthusiastically recommend it to anyone interested in learning about the historical twists and turns within the Sutras expansive history.
The first chapter of the Yoga Sutras can best be described as Samkhya (i.e. dualistic) philosophy with an appeal towards Ishvara (i.e. divinity). Author David Gordon White conveys to us that the social debate over Ishvara has driven radically different interpretations of the original manuscript. One thing which I was surprised to learn about the Sutras was that although it was translated and interpreted by Hindu, Jain, and Sufi scholars in its hay day, Patanjali may have been born out of a very different spiritual lineage altogether. One modern scholar cited by White named Michel Angot asserts that Patanjali’s intended reverence towards a surprisingly secular notion of Ishvara suggests that the author of the Sutras could have also been greatly influenced by Buddhism. Although it is unlikely that we will ever know for sure who Patanjali was exactly, I found White’s scholarship to be uncompromising is its rigorousness and poignancy.