Who Was Patanjali?

Delving into the ancient yogic texts requires having a strong sense of imagination and a splash—if not more—of suspended disbelief.  More than mere philosophy, these texts introduce the reader to a symbolic work in which hangs the delicate veil that separates reality from myth. In fact, many ancient yogic texts and their study depend on the very question of the existence of reality.

In 1896, Swami Vivekananda published Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as part of his seminal work, Raja Yoga, turning the Sutras into one of the most famous and utilitarian yogic texts in the West. Not much is known about Patanjali or the composition of the Sutras themselves. It is believed, however, that the text was written around 250 B.C.E. Even now, before opening the first page of this ancient text, the reader’s sense of viveka, or discernment, is put to the test by the question of who the sage Patanjali really was.

India enjoys a rich compendium of myths. Some of the oldest legends in the world were born there—archetypal stories that resonate because they live on in almost every culture. Details of the stories might shift, but their essence remains intact. These stories have been passed down  throughout generations, and they remain fresh and vital today. If you visit India, you can still see reenactments of them during festivals, and music and theater still celebrate these time-honored tales. Because of India’s eclectic cultural complexity, there are as many versions of these myths as there are people who tell them. If you were to ask an Indian about Patanjali, they more than likely would answer in this vein:

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away (or maybe not so far), Lord Vishnu was resting on Lord Adi Sesa, the Lord of the Serpents, watching Lord Shiva’s cosmic dance, the tandava nrtya. Lord Vishnu became so entranced by this dance that his body began to get heavy. So heavy that the great thousand-headed snake started gasping for breath and almost dropped his master. When the dance ended Lord Vishnu’s body became light again.

Lord Adi Sesa, baffled by this, asked his master how this fantastic transformation came to be. Lord Vishnu told him that he was in a state of yoga, or oneness, with Lord Shiva and was vibrating on the same cosmic vibration, which is why he became so heavy. The serpent was fascinated by this “yoga” and begged Lord Vishnu to teach it to him. Lord Vishnu told the serpent that Lord Shiva would soon grant him the honor of coming down to earth to learn yoga and dance so that he could spread it throughout the land and teach it to people.

Around the same time, there was a yogini by the name of Gonika who was sitting in tapasya, meditation, on earth. Gonika, fearing that her life was coming to an end, prayed to the gods to send her a son to whom she could impart all her yogic knowledge. At the end of her meditation, she closed her eyes and scooped some water into her palms to offer it to Lord Surya, the sun god. When she opened her eyes, there, in her palms, was a child with the tail of a snake. Gonika was so surprised to see the child that she dropped him. She named the child Patanjali, pata meaning “fallen” or “falling,” and anjali meaning “prayer.” Gonika went on to pass down all of her yogic knowledge to him.

As you can see, curiosity about who the author is is not easily assuaged if you stick with the facts. There are only a handful of scattered facts known about Patanjali. The mythical tale, however, is striking. Like most of these texts and their characters and authors, Patanjali’s legend lives on in these stories. It might be frustrating to some readers that there isn’t a simpler, more linear answer about who this person was, but it is interesting to see what one can garner from these mythic tales.

The story related above is just the better known half of the tale. There is yet another, more obscure and mysterious part, which offers insight into how Patanjali actually composed the Yoga Sutras:

It was said that Patanjali, the master, would teach from behind a screen or a veil. People would come from all over India to experience his teachings. He would teach in a great, crowded room. No one would see him and he would say nothing, yet people would leave with the knowledge of yoga. There were two rules: the students could not look behind the screen, and no one was to leave the room until the teachings were finished.

One day, a little boy had to go to the bathroom. He couldn’t hold still anymore. Desperate to relieve himself, he stepped out of the room. In that moment, the other students became restless and wondered how it was that the teacher could teach so well without using words. Who was this great master? They wanted to know, so they decided to look behind the screen.

No sooner had the first student gone past the screen that Patanjali cursed everyone in the room and turned them into ashes for breaking his first rule.

When the little boy returned he found everyone burned to ash. Terrified, he begged the sage for forgiveness for breaking the second rule. Patanjali decided to forgive him, thinking that this little boy could be at least one disciple he could hand over the knowledge to, but he couldn’t release the boy from responsibility entirely. He said to the boy, “I will teach you the Sutras and everything I know, but you have broken the rules so I curse you to become a bramharakshasa, a ghost, and hang in a tree until you can pass the knowledge on to one student.” With that, Patanjali disappeared.

For years the little ghost sat atop a tree. He asked everyone who walked by, but no one cared to learn the gift of yoga. He was there for so long that Patanjali took pity on him and decided to become his disciple. Thus the teacher becomes the student.

Sitting on the top of the tree, the little ghost recited the Sutras to Patanjali, who transposed them onto leaves. They worked for seven days and seven nights. At the end of which Patanjali, exhausted, set all the leaves on the ground in a pile. While he slept, a mischievous goat ate most of them.

This part of the story crystallizes the quandary of the student and what it means to learn. It points out that the author’s identity is of little importance to the reader. As the French literary critic Roland Barthes says in his essay “The Death of the Author,”  “The removal of the Author…is not merely an historical fact or an act of writing; it utterly transforms the modern text (or—which is the same thing—the text is henceforth made and read in such a way that at all its levels the author is absent).”

In the West, we put a lot of emphasis on who the author is and what they were thinking or trying to convey. The Eastern perspective is different. It shares in Barthes’ viewpoint that the author merely acts as a conduit who allows knowledge, thoughts, and ideas that have been and always will be to materialize and be passed down. The student does not need to see the author because the student creates a complete relationship with the learning itself, regardless of whom the teacher is. This can make the learning process more open, as it is not hampered by the limitations of the author’s intention or point of view.

This is how myth becomes a powerful, inseparable part of learning about ancient yogic traditions. Myth makes facts irrelevant. In these stories, deep truths about the human condition are being conveyed through symbolism and allegory. A specific mood, an essence, is being delivered, which asks the reader to regard a much broader range of possibility. These myths are like gems in which the reader can uncover brilliant facets of their own selves.

Thus, the reader starts to realize that perhaps cold, hard facts can be limiting—that there is more at work here than meets the eye. Who Patanjali was and whether he ever really existed, doesn’t matter much. The point is that the text exists, and that the seeker can sit down with it and absorb it in whatever way he or she decides. The myth gives the author importance only in that through the story the reader realizes that they, in fact, are Patanjali fallen from heaven to encounter their yoga. By learning, reading, seeing or listening to this story, they find out that it is their own story they are uncovering, that the reader is in fact the author.