The Yoga Sῡtras of Patañjali are commonly thought to be the authoritative text on yoga (Singleton, 27) and are often believed to be the very first exposition of yoga. I will argue in this paper that they are not the first and certainly not the only, by showing that extremely similar and often identical ideas, lists, terms and descriptions, existed in previous texts. Upon studying the principal and yoga Upaniṣads, it becomes clear that the Yoga Sῡtras are merely a bringing together of previously offered philosophies and instructions pertaining to yoga, from the formerly written Upaniṣads.
Patañjali is said to have authored the Yoga Sῡtras somewhere around the third century A.D. Or did he? Common sense might suggest that he may not have even existed at all. Although a Sanskrit grammarian under that name did live near that time, most tales tell that Patañjali came to earth as an incarnation of Viṣnu in the form of a tiny snake that landed in his mother’s hands, only to develop the body of a man from the waist up and thenceforth became of master of yoga and authored the Yoga Sῡtras. This unlikely legend, albeit mythologically divine and typically Indian, suggests unfortunately somewhat deficient credibility, at least in an accurate historical sense.
Whether Patañjali actually lived and produced the Yoga Sῡtras or not, it still stands that the treatise was not the first to record, describe or present yoga in the way that it does. There were very preliminary mentions of yoga in the Ṛg Veda (yoking the mind to the highest truth, yuj being the word meaning to yoke, which the word yoga comes from) and in the Atharvaveda which talks about the eight mystic circles or wheels, which seems to be the start of the idea of chakras or the energy system within the body which yoga seeks to manipulate. Later though, in many, nay most of the Upaniṣads, the theory of yoga is outlined and formulated in full. In fact, the Upaniṣads offer yogic philosophy and instruction in more comprehensiveness than does the Yoga Sῡtras.
To demonstrate this point, I will explicate some of the central aphorisms from the Yoga Sῡtras and show where they existed previously in the Upaniṣads. The main points include the definition of yoga, the five afflictions of the mind, the centrality, meaning and proper usage of the syllable OM, the mandate of devotion to the lord and the description of ‘lord’, the eight limbs of yoga and the components of each and also the powers which are said to arise from the practice of yoga.
Patañjali’s Yoga Sῡtras (I will continue to refer to them as his!) define yoga as yogas citta vritti nirodha, or “yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.” This description is given multiple times in the Upaniṣads. The Katha Upaniṣad tells that yoga is considered to be the steady fixing of the senses and reining in of the mind and when this happens that is the highest state (6.10) and also that a wise man should curb his speech and his mind (3.13). The Taittirīya describes how sages should and could control their senses (2.4.1) and in the later Sandilyopaniṣad it is said that the ‘throbbing of the mind is suspended’ via yoga, which sounds even closer to Patanjali’s definition.
The fluctuations in the mind, Patañjali states, are caused by five kleśas, or causes of affliction. These five are ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion and the will to live. The Mandala-Brahmanopaniṣad also talks about five inherent defects characteristic of humans (chapter 2) which is likely alluding to the same idea. But if we look more closely at each of the five outlined in the Yoga Sῡtras we will see how each of these appeared as an affliction and something to be overcome, in the Upaniṣads.
Avidya, or ignorance, is explained as the root of all of the other hindrances to spiritual growth. This lack of knowledge is seen as a head-shattering predicament that all must seek to conquer, both in the Yoga Sῡtras and in very many Upaniṣads. The Chāndogya Upaniṣad says that knowledge burns away karma and is transformative (5.24). The Taittirīya Upaniṣad invokes “May both of us obtain the lustre of sacred knowledge!” (1.3). In the Aitareya Upaniṣad it is said that “Knowledge is the eye of the world, and knowledge, the foundation. Brahman is knowing… with this self consisting of knowledge… became immortal.” (3.4) In the Kauṣītaki Upaniṣad we are warned that one who arrives at death without complete knowledge, will drown (in the mythological lake Ara). (1.4a) And in the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad it is said that “ignorance is the imperishable and knowledge is the immortal” (5.1).
Asmita, or ego, sometimes translated as I-am-ness, has to do with a wrongly established identity and sense of individuation. All throughout the Upaniṣads the argument is made that the self (Atman) is not separate from Brahman. It is shown in … that there is no ‘me’ to differentiate from everything else. We are told in the Tejo-Bindῡpaniṣad that we must curb egoism (among other things) to know the Brahman. It also teaches that egoism is false and that the mantra “I am Brahman” destroys the knowledge of the Atman and the misery of the knowledge of duality (ch3).
Raga, or attachment and sometimes lust, for material things is said to always lead to sorrow in the Yoga Sῡtras and is demonstrated as such in the Upaniṣads. In the Katha Upaniṣad the importance of non-thirsting for material things is made explicit in the lines “fools pursue outward desires” (4.2) and in the dialogue between Naciketas and Death, where the former says to the latter “With wealth you cannot make man content; will we get to keep wealth, when we have seen you (death)?”(1.27) The Tejo-Bindῡpaniṣad says that we must give up all attachments and all grasping tendencies. (ch. 1) In the Yoga Kundaly Upaniṣad it says that “a man longs for an object through passion” (2.3) but “he should abandon everything else that he thinks is favourable to himself.” (2.4)
Dveṣa, or aversion, is the repulsion to entities which provide unpleasant experiences. The Yoga Sῡtras teach that to overcome these aversion and also attachments, one must practice dispassion for pleasant and unpleasant sensations. The Tejo-Bindῡpaniṣad also suggests that one “must subjugate passions kindled by the senses” in order to perceive Brahman (ch 1). In the Nada-Bindu it is revealed that by continual practice one is freed from all states, does not feel heat or cold, and therefore neither joy (creates attachment) nor sorrow (creates aversion), and will then attain his true state (41-55).
Abhinivesa, is the will to live and likewise the fear of death, and the Yoga Sῡtras instruct that it must be overcome by meditative absorption to become free from sorrow yet to come. One of the main themes throughout the Upaniṣads is the dedication towards realizing Brahman, in which case one sheds off his karmic bondage and is thereby released from samsara into mokṣa and finally out of the wheel of continual rebirth. If one is pursuing this purpose, then it must be a pre-requisite that one must let go of the fear of death and the will to live, since in essence he is trying to escape both of those altogether. The very common talk in the Upaniṣads of becoming immortal is not to be interpreted as trying to stay alive forever and never die, but rather, to never be born again, and in that sense, to essentially ‘not live’.
The understanding of syllable OM is also in accordance in the Upaniṣads and the in Yoga Sῡtras. Patanjali offers the aphorisms that the lord’s symbol is OM and that if you recite OM and contemplate its meaning then your obstacles will be removed. These concepts exist in many of the Upaniṣads. Discussion of and reverence towards OM is a major part of the Chāndogya Upaniṣad. OM and the breath don’t only lead to Brahman, but this Upaniṣad teaches that they ARE Brahman, and are the essence of all. In the Chāndogya Upaniṣad it is stated that “A man who utters this syllable with that knowledge enters this very syllable, the sound that is immortal and free from fear. As the Gods became immortal, so will he.” (1.4.5) This sounds like the exact same idea, only in different words. To further demonstrate this equivalence, the Maitri Upaniṣad also teaches that meditation on the syllable OM creates awareness of Samadhi. The Katha Upaniṣad promises that when one knows this syllable he obtains his every wish (2.16). In the Yoga Cῡḍāmaṇi Upaniṣad it is stated that “Brahman is OM” (1.72) and “Because Om is the ethereal light, it has to be pronounced by words, practiced by the body and meditated upon by the mind.” (1.87)
Another of Patañjali’s precepts is that the lord (which he interprets ultimately as the truest form of the Self) is untouched by afflictions, and also that action and karma do not have consequence for this quintessential Atman/Iśvara. He says that Karma is neither black nor white for the Yogi (who has realized this true essence), whereas for others it is threefold. This means that while other have either good karma (white), bad karma (black), or a mix (grey), an accomplished Yogi, who has merged with the lord (gone inside to this deepest layer of his being) is beyond those three conditions. This very same concept exists as far back as in the first chronological Upaniṣad, the Bṛhadāraṇyaka. It states that “this immense unborn self, there in the space of the heart he lies, controller of all… He does not become more by good actions or in any way less by bad actions.” (4.4.22)
“The term Aṣtanga was first used by the sage Patanjali, the writer of a treatise on yoga sῡtras, over two thousand years ago.”(Sweeney) This common assumption is wholly incorrect. The term and the theory occurs many times throughout the Upaniṣads. Aṣta means eight and anga means limb or branch, signifying that there are eight essential components to Yoga. Patañjali’s eight limbs are yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. Each one of these concepts is proposed as a principal part of yoga in the Upaniṣads, and also this very same set of eight, together as a whole and sometimes in this exact order, exists in multiple Upaniṣads. The Yoga-Tattvopaniṣad give the same eight limbs, in the same order (24-27) as the Yoga Sῡtras. The same version of Aṣtanga Yoga is also outlined in the Tri-śikhi-Brāhmaṇopaniṣad (1.28-32). In the Darśanopaniṣad gives the same elements in the same order, however, has ten yamas and ten niyamas (1.4-5), compared to Patañjali’s five only of each. The Darśana also give much more detail of each of the limbs, than does Patanjali. The mention of eight subdivisions also exists in the Varāhopaniṣad (11-12) and in the Sandilyopaniṣad (Khanda 1).
Patañjali details that the ten ethical precepts which a yogi must follow include five yamas (restraints), five niyamas (observance). The yamas, which are explained in the Tri-śikhi-Brahmanopaniṣad as “detachment in relation to the body and the organs of sense” (28-32) are ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacarya (celibacy) and aparigraha (non-grasping). The five niyamas are saucha (cleanliness), santoṣa (contentment), tapas (heat or practice), svadhyaya (self-study) and Iśvara pranidhana (surrender to the lord). Each concept is presented in the Upaniṣads, prior to Patañjali’s inclusion of them in the Yoga Sῡtras.
The concept of ahimsa or non-harming is promoted in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad whereby it is said that “he who refrains from killing any creature except a worthy person, does not return again” (8.15). By a worthy person, I interpret this to mean someone who rightfully brings harm upon himself in the form of self-defence or any situation comparable, and by saying one will not return again, it is meant that refraining from violence ensures that no bad karma is created which would bond one to life. This is a desirable effect since the goal of existence at that time and in this context was to shrug off the connection to the wheel of birth and death. The Darsanopaniṣad goes further to say one must practice “non-indulgence in violence by body, mind or word.” (1) Ahimsa is also one of the yamas as outlined in the Tri-śikhi-Upaniṣad (32) and in others as well.
Satya means truth and is expounded as a supreme virtue in nearly all of the Upaniṣads. The Chāndogya Upaniṣad states that “what prevents one from being burnt – truth, that is the self. That is how you are.” (6.15.3). This is asserting that truth is not just something you do or say, then, but something much more profound. It is something that you are and you must pursue the realization of that reality. This is a core idea in the Upaniṣad, that truth is Brahman. Since Atman is Brahman then it follows that ‘you are that’ (truth). Truth is also listed under the yamas of the Tri-śikhi-Brahmanopaniṣad (32). The Darsanopaniṣad states that only what is ‘seen, heard, smelt’ by the sense organs ought to be expressed as the truth (9).
Asteya means non-stealing and is also listed as one of the ten yamas in the Tri-śikhi-Brahmanopaniṣad. The Darsanopaniṣad promotes this value as follows, “the total abstinence of the mind from the straw,
gem, gold and even the pearl belonging to others, wise men know that to be Abstinence from stealth.” (11-12)
Brahmacarya can be translated and defined in a great many ways, but most often as celibacy or chastity for the purpose of conserving sexual energy in order to increase vitality. In the Chāndogya Upaniṣad it is expressed that what people normally call sacrifice (formally and outward) is in reality the life of a celibate student (inward sacrifice by way of giving up sexual pleasures). It is also said there that “by way of living the life of a celibate student des not perish”. (8.5.1) Later in the same text it is described how one ought to be like his teacher, which is another possible interpretation of brahmacarya. If he lives that way, he attains Brahman. (8.15)
Aparigraha literally means non-grasping and refers to not being greedy or taking more than you need. In that Darsanopaniṣad this idea is present in one of the ten yamas, by way of temperance in food, which refers to only taking and eating as much as you need to survive, rather than all that you may want. (19) The renunciation of the desire for possessions is endorsed in the chat with Naciketas and Death in the Katha Upaniṣad, whereby Naciketas chooses not to make any of his three wishes for physical objects, but rather for knowledge, teaching that grasping at material things serves no purpose. (1.27)
The first or Patanjali’s niyamas is saucha which means cleanliness or purity, and in the Yoga Sῡtras both internal and external cleanliness is necessary. In the Darsanopaniṣad the same distinction is made between cleanliness of the mind and of the body. (1.20-23) The Kauṣītaki Upaniṣad requires mental cleanliness in its rendering of pride. It declares that if you do not succumb to pride, then you are worthy of teachings and the truth (1.1).
Santoṣa means contentment, or more precisely that one should be satisfied with whatever his fortune is, or isn’t, in life this time around. The Tri-śikhi-Brahmanopaniṣad again lists this same value as one of its ten niyamas. The Sandilyopaniṣad explains it as “satisfaction at whatever chance brings in is what is termed as continence.” (khanda 2)
Tapas literally means heat or fire but is also interpreted as austerity, work, practice, burning intensity, mental fervour, dedication, self-application, sacrifice. Patañjali means this in the sense of perfecting the body and sense organs by way of burning off impurities through various different methods. B.K.S. Iyengar interprets this to mean that one must have an unflagging hardness towards oneself in order to have compassion and forgiveness towards others, as in the case of Gandhi. (light on YS 156) It is a theme in the early Upaniṣads that formerly external sacrifice to achieve gains by means of fire offerings, killing animals and other rituals come to be replaced by internal sacrifices (Tapir) such as brahmacarya, giving up society to become an ascetic, and other practices which rein in the senses and train the mind and body in order to attain Brahman.
The Chāndogya Upaniṣad says just that, “What people normally call a sacrifice (yajna) is in reality, the life of a celibate student” 8.5). Similarly, the Aitareya Upaniṣad also talks about how external sacrifice becomes internal sacrifice, “fire became speech”(1.2.4). In the Taittirīya Upaniṣad we are told straightforwardly to “practice austerities to perceive Brahman” (3.3), and in the Muṇḍaka it says that the true self can be known by tapas, svadhyaya and brahmacarya (3.1.5). The closing of the Kena Upaniṣad details that austerity (tapas), self-control and rites are the foundation of understanding Brahman (3.8).
Svadhyaya is self-study and refers to recitation, silent and aloud, and also meditation upon sacred Hindu texts. Patañjali supposes that penetration of these scriptures, mantras and readings mainly from the Vedas, will impart significant powers and insight. In the Taittirīya Upaniṣad there is a whole section about the importance of Vedic recitation. It is said there that, “Austerity, self-control, rites… (all) yes, but also the public and private recitation of the Vedas” (1.9), and, “do not neglect your private recitation of the Vedas” (1.11).
The final of Patañjali’s niyamas is Iśvara pranidhana which means complete devotion to, or surrender to the lord. The entirety of the short Isa Upaniṣad is an exposition of this very contention, that all is made by, moved by, belongs to and is inhabited by the lord and that we must give ourselves over to Iśvara because of that. In the last line of this Upaniṣad it exclaims “O God, lead us to riches, along an easy path” (18) which presupposes giving up restraint and allowing oneself to be led (by God). Patanjali defines the lord Iśvara as the eternal, unchanging puruṣa (primeval self) who is the constant, is the knower of all and is controller of the mind, totally free from afflictions. The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad explains the lord in a strikingly similar way as, “this immense unborn self, there in the space of the heart he lies, controller of all… he does not become more by good actions or in any way less by bad actions.”(4.4.22)
After the yamas and the niyamas in the Yoga Sῡtras comes asana. The same order of angas is present in the Tri-Śikhi-Brahmanopaniṣad, whereby one must at first, gain control of themselves via the yamas and niyamas and only then can they move properly on to the practice of asana and pranāyama. Asana means seat, and refers to physical postures or poses. Patañjali states that by perfecting asana, making them comfortable, steady and effortless, then one overcomes pairs-or-opposites (heat-cold, pleasure-pain, etc). There is not much else said about the postures, as in which ones, how to perform them, for how long, or in which order, whereby many of the Upaniṣads give specifics about asana.
The Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad states that “when he keeps his body straight with the three parts erect and draws the senses together with the mind into his heart a wise man shall cross the fruitful rivers”(2.8). This may be the first notions of posture relating to yoga. The Sandilyopaniṣad gives details of eight particular postures and how exactly they should be practiced: the svastika, the gomuka, the Padma, the vira, the siipha, the bhadra, the mukta and the mayura (khanda 3.3) , while the Darsanopaniṣad lists nine (1.2) along with exact mantras to perform during asana to increase concentration (3.3). The Varāhopaniṣad gives descriptions of ten postures and adds that asana practice leads to bodily strength and robustness 37). The Dhyana Bindῡpaniṣad gives not list but says there are as many postures as there are living creatures (42).
Relating to yogasana are various elements not mentioned at all in the Yoga Sῡtras that are certainly vital components of a complete understanding of what yoga is. Patañjali omitted any information about or insight into bandhas, chakras and nadis, which are included in the theory and practice of almost all forms of modern yoga.
Bandhas are physical and energetic locks within the body, performed during asana and pranayama. The Tejo Bindῡpaniṣad gives a detailed description of mula bandha (the root lock) (27), while the Yoga Kuṇḍaly Upaniṣad outlines the three which are now practiced in the ever popular aṣtanga vinyasa system stemming from Kriṣnamacarya and Pattabhi Jois: mula, uddiyana (the abdominal lock) and jalandara (the chin lock). (42-53) In the Sandilyopaniṣad we are told of the great necessity of performing the three bandhas for yoga (khanda 2, 11-12).
Cakras are wheels, or centers of spinning energy within the body and nadis are channels (literally rivers) through which that energy flows through and to various parts the body. The goal or most yoga is to move that energy upwards, away from the muladhara (root) chakra up the suṣumna nadi which is the central channel towards the sahasrara (crown) cakra. The Mandala-Brāhmaṇopaniṣad details nine different chakras, but he Yoga Cῡḍāmaṇi Upaniṣad explains them (3.5), including that the muladhara chakra has great radiance and exists at the seat of the genitals (6-11). The Katha Upaniṣad refers to the nadis and this yogic energy system when it offers the insight ‘one hundred and one veins to the heart. One of them runs up to the crown of the head. Going up by it he reaches the immortal. The rest, in their ascent, spread out in all directions (6.16). The Maitri Upaniṣad refers to the suṣumna nadi and the sahasrara cakra as well, describing it as the central channel or the subtle body where energy moves upward with the breath to form a union in the head (6.21).
Pranayama is the extension (ayama) of breath or life-force (prana) and is Patañjali’s fourth limb. The Yoga Sῡtras again give little definition or instruction of breath extension, except that it is regulated by place, time and number, and that it transcends the internal and external space. With pranayama, Patañjali says that the internal light is uncovered. In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka this idea is one of the central teachings. The breath is shown to be the superior among the bodily functions, “He (the central breath) is clearly the best among us (the vital functions)”(1.5.21). This idea continues in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad where the breath is shown to be so important that it is “the best and the greatest” of the senses (5.1). The Kauṣītaki Upaniṣad teaches that “a man who knows that breath is superior becomes immortal” (2.13). The Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad gives more detail than the others in that “by compressing his breaths and curbing his movements a man should exhale through one nostril when his breath is exhausted” (2.9). The Mandala-Brahmanopaniṣad teaches that pranayama is the dispeller of diseases yet should be brought under control slowly, because in the way a tiger may be gradually tamed, so too may the breath be, but if either is attempted to quickly it can kill the individual (116-119). This identical narrative exists in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which is a central text by which modern yoga practice is informed.
Next is pratyahara and it is the practice of obtaining supreme obedience of the sense organs, also known as sense-withdrawal. Patañjali states that this practice prepares the mind for concentration. The Katha Upaniṣad purports the same knowledge as it says that one ought to rein in his mind like wild horses, and that when his senses obey him his mind is controlled and then he can be mindful and pure and reach the final step. The Darsanopaniṣad also explains that the forcible bringing back of the senses equates to perfect control of the mind. (7.1-2)
The final three components of aṣtanga yoga are in another section of the Yoga Sῡtras than the first five, as they relate now to the inner quest and together lead to tranquility and changes in the consciousness. Dharana means concentration and Patañjali describes it as binding consciousness to a single spot. The Tri-śikhi-Brahmanopaniṣad refers to this as a steady abstraction of the mind (133-134), while the Sandilyopaniṣad calls it a stabilizing of the mind (khanda IX, 1). The Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad warns that “a wise man should keep his mind vigilantly under control.” (2,9)
Dhyana is meditation. Patañjali articulates that meditation is a steady flow of attention directed towards one point or region. A method for this meditation is provided in the Sandilyopaniṣad where it is told that meditation may be on a deity or on atman alone, where all else is denied (khanda X, 1). The Tri-śikhi-Brahmanopaniṣad states that “all functioning of the mind of that meditating Yogin perishes,—of (the Yogin) who is engaged only in meditation” (152-153), and that “the liberation of that Yogin is on the palm of his hand,—(of him) who meditates on the imperishable lustre of consciousness seated in the middle of the lotus of the heart” (156-157). The Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad dictates that those who follow the discipline of meditation know God (1,3) which correlates with the point Patañjali makes: that dhyana leads to samadhi.
Samadhi is Patañjali’s final limb of yoga and occurs when meditation absorbs the meditator and all self-awareness disappears, leading to a union of subject and object and a resultant state of supreme joy. The Yoga Kuṇḍaly Upaniṣad iterates this in the following way, “This state (of having pierced through the phenomenal world of differences and reached the form of the Brahma-vidya) alone should be known as the transcendent state of Videha-mukti and this alone is the cause of the manifestation of Supreme Bliss.—Thus.” (ch 1, 82-87) The Sandilyopaniṣad says that samadhi is a state of union between jivatman (small, individual self/soul) and paramatman (great, universal, true self) which creates a form of exquisite bliss (khanda X1, 1).
Another central part of the Yoga Sῡtras is the acknowledgement that through yoga one acquires siddhis, or supernatural powers and also that one should be careful not mistake these powers as the goal of his quest and in fact, renounce all powers that are attained. He states that one can attain knowledge of previous births, knowledge of other’s minds, knowledge of death, invisibility, power comparable to an elephant, and many more. The promise of powers is also stated in the Yoga Kuṇḍaly Upaniṣad simply with the statement that “Through this yoga, siddhi is mastered.” (2, 18) The Sandilyopaniṣad agrees that yoga leads to the acquisition of various psychic powers (VII, 45). The Yoga-Tattvopaniṣad says not only that such powers are possible, but adds that the power of moving through ethereal space is a potential. (72-81) The Yoga Tattvopaniṣad also says that great powers such as levitation are achievable but, like Patañjali’s warning, that one must not disclose these powers to others.
There are numerous other points in the Yoga Sῡtras, 194 aphorisms to be precise, than the ones I have described here. In order to demonstrate the claim I am making however, that the main ideas in the yoga text attributed to Patañjali were not original at the time of composition, nor are they the sole source informing yoga practice as we know it, the analysis of the specific aforementioned core philosophies ought to suffice. Although the Yoga Sῡtras are extensively studied, valued and respected, rightfully so, perhaps the text does not deserve quite as high a reputation as it presently does possess.