Little is known about the historical Patanjali, and it is not clear, whether he actually existed as a person. According to Hindu myth Patanjali was the incarnation of Adi Shesha, the king of snakes, who was a devotee of Vishnu. After Vishnu’s recounting of seeing and experiencing Shiva’s Cosmic Dance in the Daruvana forest, Adi Shesha begged his Lord’s permission to go and see the Cosmic Dance for himself. After performing strenuous tapas (ascetic practice) Shiva gave him the boon of being born as a son to the sage Atri and his wife Anasuya. After giving birth to a half snake and half human being, she dropped him from shock as she took him in her hands for the first time. From there came his name Pata-anjali, Patanjali, Fallen from Folded Hands. In spite of this traumatic after-birth-experience, Patanjali became the founder of the Nataraja Mandir (temple) in Chidambaram and the reputed author of the third-century Hindu text called the Yoga Sutra, which laid the foundation for the whole Yoga tradition. The Yoga Sutra is unquestionably one of the most important texts in Indian philosophy and spirituality. The terse collection of aphorisms systematizes the theory and practice of yoga, a mental and bodily discipline with a history extending back hundreds of years before the Common Era. The term yoga comes from the Sanskrit root yuj (unite) and is cognate to the English word “yoke.” In this sense, yoga is the process by which one “unites” or “yokes” the individual appearance with the divine. The second meaning of “yoke” is “to control, to discipline” like a yoke controls two oxen in front of a cart. So, by controlling one’s senses and intellect the yogi realizes the transcendental Divine Self. The human entity is thus a “mind-body complex,” fundamentally operating from infinite and formless consciousness.
Part of a painting of Patanjali by Rabi Behera
The following verses are an excerpt from part 2 of the sutras, translated by Chip Hartranft:
II.15 The wise see suffering in all experience, whether from the anguish of impermanence, or from latent impressions laden with suffering, or from incessant conflict as the fundamental qualities of nature vie for ascendancy.
II.16 But suffering that has not yet arisen can be prevented.
II.17 The preventable cause of all this suffering is the apparent indivisibility of pure awareness and what it regards.
II.18 What awareness regards, namely the phenomenal world, embodies the qualities of luminosity, activity, and inertia; it includes oneself, composed of both elements and the senses; and, it is the ground for both sensual experience and liberation.
II.19 All orders of being – undifferentiated, differentiated, indistinct, distinct – are manifestations of the fundamental qualities of nature.
II.20 Pure awareness is just seeing, itself; although pure, it usually appears to operate through the perceiving mind.
II.21 In essence, the phenomenal world exists to reveal this truth.
II.22 Once that happens, the phenomenal world no longer appears as such; it continues to exist as a common reality for everyone else, though.
II.23 It is by virtue of the apparent indivisibility of the phenomenal world and pure awareness that the former seems to possess the latter’s powers.
II.24 Not seeing things as they are is the cause of this phenomenon.
II.25 With realization, the appearance of indivisibility vanishes, revealing that awareness is free and untouched by phenomena.
II.26 The apparent indivisibility of seeing and the seen can be eradicated by cultivating uninterrupted discrimination between awareness and what it regards.
II.27 At the ultimate level of discrimination, wisdom extends to all seven aspects of nature.
II.28 When the components of yoga are practiced, impurities dwindle; then, the light of understanding can shine forth, illuminating the way to discriminative awareness.