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The rise, fall, and modern resurgence of an enigmatic book revered by yoga enthusiasts around the world Consisting of fewer than two hundred verses written in an obscure if not impenetrable language and style, Patanjali's Yoga Sutra is today extolled by the yoga establishment as a perennial classic and guide to yoga practice. As David Gordon White demonstrates in this groun The rise, fall, and modern resurgence of an enigmatic book revered by yoga enthusiasts around the world Consisting of fewer than two hundred verses written in an obscure if not impenetrable language and style, Patanjali's Yoga Sutra is today extolled by the yoga establishment as a perennial classic and guide to yoga practice. As David Gordon White demonstrates in this groundbreaking study, both of these assumptions are incorrect. Virtually forgotten in India for hundreds of years and maligned when it was first discovered in the West, the Yoga Sutra has been elevated to its present iconic status--and translated into more than forty languages--only in the course of the past forty years. White retraces the strange and circuitous journey of this confounding work from its ancient origins down through its heyday in the seventh through eleventh centuries, its gradual fall into obscurity, and its modern resurgence since the nineteenth century. First introduced to the West by the British Orientalist Henry Thomas Colebrooke, the Yoga Sutra was revived largely in Europe and America, and predominantly in English. White brings to life the improbable cast of characters whose interpretations--and misappropriations--of the Yoga Sutra led to its revered place in popular culture today. Tracing the remarkable trajectory of this enigmatic work, White's exhaustively researched book also demonstrates why the yoga of India's past bears little resemblance to the yoga practiced today.


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The rise, fall, and modern resurgence of an enigmatic book revered by yoga enthusiasts around the world Consisting of fewer than two hundred verses written in an obscure if not impenetrable language and style, Patanjali's Yoga Sutra is today extolled by the yoga establishment as a perennial classic and guide to yoga practice. As David Gordon White demonstrates in this groun The rise, fall, and modern resurgence of an enigmatic book revered by yoga enthusiasts around the world Consisting of fewer than two hundred verses written in an obscure if not impenetrable language and style, Patanjali's Yoga Sutra is today extolled by the yoga establishment as a perennial classic and guide to yoga practice. As David Gordon White demonstrates in this groundbreaking study, both of these assumptions are incorrect. Virtually forgotten in India for hundreds of years and maligned when it was first discovered in the West, the Yoga Sutra has been elevated to its present iconic status--and translated into more than forty languages--only in the course of the past forty years. White retraces the strange and circuitous journey of this confounding work from its ancient origins down through its heyday in the seventh through eleventh centuries, its gradual fall into obscurity, and its modern resurgence since the nineteenth century. First introduced to the West by the British Orientalist Henry Thomas Colebrooke, the Yoga Sutra was revived largely in Europe and America, and predominantly in English. White brings to life the improbable cast of characters whose interpretations--and misappropriations--of the Yoga Sutra led to its revered place in popular culture today. Tracing the remarkable trajectory of this enigmatic work, White's exhaustively researched book also demonstrates why the yoga of India's past bears little resemblance to the yoga practiced today.

30 review for The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Barnaby Thieme

    Anyone familiar with David Gordon White's work will know what to expect from this history of the reception and interpretation of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra - a fascinating, stimulating, engaging, and illuminating encounter with one of the seminal texts that informs the world's understanding of Hinduism and Indian religious history as a whole. Readers looking for easy answers may come away disappointed, because almost nothing is known for certain about who Patanjali was, or what he was trying to do w Anyone familiar with David Gordon White's work will know what to expect from this history of the reception and interpretation of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra - a fascinating, stimulating, engaging, and illuminating encounter with one of the seminal texts that informs the world's understanding of Hinduism and Indian religious history as a whole. Readers looking for easy answers may come away disappointed, because almost nothing is known for certain about who Patanjali was, or what he was trying to do with this notoriously impenetrable text. Indeed, as White calls out, the root Sutras themselves in their entirety contain only four verbs, and so the collection of cryptic aphorisms has been inseparable from Vyasa's Samkhya commentary for as far back as we can see. Perhaps, as some have argued, Vyasa, which is essentially a Sanskrit word meaning "editor," was simply Patanjali himself, producing an auto-commentary to a work that would better be called Yogashastra, or "Treatise on Yoga." There is little about this text that we can say for certain. However, there is a great deal that can and must be said about how it has been interpreted, appropriated, and reconstructed in the light of shifting priorities and beliefs over the centuries. Many of its most prominent exponents have had only a hazy understanding of its likely meaning, or have been indifferent to its original sense, and preferred to recast it in terms of their understanding of what is quintessentially Indian, like Schlegel, or to read it in the light of Advaita Vedanta, as countless modern interpreters have done. As a longtime student of Indian philosophy, I deeply appreciated the light this riveting book shed on the history of the interpretation and dissemination of Indian philosophy in the Western world. A great many of the key figures involved in the study of Indian religion have offered their own views on this work, and it was enormously useful to review the various generations of interpretation in this fascinating case study, which touches on everyone from F. Max Müller to Madame Blavatsky and William Butler Yeats. The one place where I may differ from the author is that I believe I'm a bit more neutral on the concept of appropriation of religious ideas, of which he is highly critical. I think it makes sense for the Vendantin, for example, to intuit that what Patanjali is really getting at in invoking Ishvara is an experience or consciousness of something that, in their own system, they would call God or Brahman, and to confidently offer a parallel there. Indeed, White has made a very persuasive case that there has not been any original Yoga Sutra to reconstruct for a great many centuries, so all we have is a history of interpretations. But White seems rather critical and often derisive of many appropriations - probably more so than I would be, though I'm sympathetic when he comes round to rebuke the legions of charlatans who have made up this or that out of thin air, for their own purposes. Speaking of appropriation, White spends some amount of time giving Hegel a beat down for his totally unqualified engagement with the Yoga Sutra, arguing that Hegel didn't know the material very well and had to rely entirely on secondary sources, and was therefore an unqualified interlocutor. It was ironic to read, then, that his own account of Hegel relied heavily on secondary treatment, and White himself demonstrated a severe and fundamental misunderstanding of German idealism in erroneously describing the Kantian noumenon as that which is apprehended by the mind rather than the senses. A mistake of that magnitude implies that he is at least as in the dark about German philosophy as Hegel was about Hinduism. So there it is - there's a lot to know and we all do what we can with what we have. If you're looking for a critical academic study of the Yoga Sutra and its meaning, I recommend this book very highly. I found it altogether excellent.

  2. 5 out of 5

    C. Varn

    David Gordon White traces the various theories and controversies around both the interpretation of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra as well as its strange revival via 19th and 20th-century Orientalists, Theosophists, and Hindu/Yoga reformers. White traces the controversies around the commentary and the particular versions of Sanskirt, the conflations of the interpretation tradition, and the sutras strange place in the modern yoga movement(s) both in the West and in India. White illustrates how little we c David Gordon White traces the various theories and controversies around both the interpretation of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra as well as its strange revival via 19th and 20th-century Orientalists, Theosophists, and Hindu/Yoga reformers. White traces the controversies around the commentary and the particular versions of Sanskirt, the conflations of the interpretation tradition, and the sutras strange place in the modern yoga movement(s) both in the West and in India. White illustrates how little we can say about the text for sure, but does present most of the theories of its origin and its wild modern reception history.

  3. 5 out of 5

    BHodges

    This is one of the more difficult titles in Princeton's "Lives of Great Religious Books" series which I've read, and the difficulty certainly stems from my own unfamiliarity with Hindu, Buddhist, and Indian religion in general. I'm not sure I'd recommend this as an introductory text. White decided to weave multiple chronologies together in a way that had me reeling a bit considering the unfamiliar names and concepts. For beginners like me this book will require at least two readings. Still, White This is one of the more difficult titles in Princeton's "Lives of Great Religious Books" series which I've read, and the difficulty certainly stems from my own unfamiliarity with Hindu, Buddhist, and Indian religion in general. I'm not sure I'd recommend this as an introductory text. White decided to weave multiple chronologies together in a way that had me reeling a bit considering the unfamiliar names and concepts. For beginners like me this book will require at least two readings. Still, White challenges many common assumptions about the practice of yoga and its connections (tenuous) to ancient perspectives. Madame Blavatsky, T.S. Eliot, Hegel, and Yeats are some of the nineteenth-century western figures who became tangled up in the fascinating resurrection of a text, the Yoga Sutra, which had sank in obscurity for centuries.

  4. 5 out of 5

    xDEAD ENDx

    I have no idea why so many other reviewers seem to perceive this work as a challenging read, since it seems rather straightforward and there is a reasonable explanation for any "philosophical" words used. Overall, this is an excellent read that really calls into question the origins of modern (Western) yoga practice and philosophy and the men who uphold it. The final chapter is a kicker, and I wish more was said, but the idea that Patanjali's Sutras is of Buddhist origin (with the final chapter I have no idea why so many other reviewers seem to perceive this work as a challenging read, since it seems rather straightforward and there is a reasonable explanation for any "philosophical" words used. Overall, this is an excellent read that really calls into question the origins of modern (Western) yoga practice and philosophy and the men who uphold it. The final chapter is a kicker, and I wish more was said, but the idea that Patanjali's Sutras is of Buddhist origin (with the final chapter added to "Hindu-ize" the text during a period of war between Hindus and Buddhists) brings a completely different perspective to considerations as to whether or not "yoga" is a religious practice.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Rick

    A succinct "biography" of a puzzling and esoteric work that is enjoying a bizarre second life in the age of internet spirituality. White tells the thousand year history of the Yoga Sutra's reception without obfuscation or condescension. This volume is much better edited than White's Sinister Yogis, which I read last year. Fewer academic circumlocutions; more simple, declarative sentences. White still has a fondness for cliche, but we all have our weaknesses. A succinct "biography" of a puzzling and esoteric work that is enjoying a bizarre second life in the age of internet spirituality. White tells the thousand year history of the Yoga Sutra's reception without obfuscation or condescension. This volume is much better edited than White's Sinister Yogis, which I read last year. Fewer academic circumlocutions; more simple, declarative sentences. White still has a fondness for cliche, but we all have our weaknesses.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Frank Jude

    Everyone who has gone through a yoga-teacher training in the last 30 years or so should read this book, for many reasons, among them so that they can learn how what they learned was either completely wrong or just very limited. David Gordon White has written a "biography" of this text which has had a rich and very varied life through two millennia and I continually meet yoga teachers who have little to no idea what Patanjali actually teaches in the Yoga Sutra. Of course, when the Yoga Alliance o Everyone who has gone through a yoga-teacher training in the last 30 years or so should read this book, for many reasons, among them so that they can learn how what they learned was either completely wrong or just very limited. David Gordon White has written a "biography" of this text which has had a rich and very varied life through two millennia and I continually meet yoga teachers who have little to no idea what Patanjali actually teaches in the Yoga Sutra. Of course, when the Yoga Alliance only requires some 10-20 hours of history and philosophy to cover several thousand years of a living tradition, along with the brash cultural appropriation and colonial history of the last several hundred years this is to be expected, I guess. Thus the importance of this "biography." Among other things that I would bring to the attention of contemporary yoga practitioners is that this book is part of Princeton Universities "Lives of Great Religious Books" series. This is important because the religious origins of yoga are often ignored, down-played or out-right denied! This is how colonialism and cultural appropriation works. The Yoga-Sutra is a text of philosophy, yes, but in Indian culture, philosophy cannot be separated from religious concerns and the fact that all Indian philosophy (both Vedic orthodox philosophy and heterodox non-Vedic philosophies) are soteriological and arise within a specific ancient culture whose values are very different than those of most contemporary practitioners leads to many distortions of the teachings. As Georg Feuerstein told a group of us students once, we can disagree with Patanjali, but we should first know and understand him! White's biography reads like a fascinating mystery novel at times, and the list of characters can get so long and convoluted that it takes real effort to follow the threads of history. Perhaps this too is to be expected as the word sutra itself means 'thread!' The story ends with questions; more questions than answers and again this is as it should be if we are to respect and engage with the Yoga traditions as living traditions and not mere fossils. Though here again, Feuerstein may have captured the reality in referring to Yoga as a "living fossil." Yes, it's rife with contradiction, like life itself.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Thirumalai

    Excellent book on the history of yoga sutra. Whoever wanted to start reading tough sutra this is must read book and it help you to remove certain blocks from your mind.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Giulia Mastrantoni

    Very detailed.

  9. 5 out of 5

    APH

    David Gordon White does not like the modern Yoga love of the Sutras, and he's ready to tell you all about why. Get ready for a lot of shade. David Gordon White does not like the modern Yoga love of the Sutras, and he's ready to tell you all about why. Get ready for a lot of shade.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Geoff

    First, I have to admit that history is not the easiest topic for me to read. My interest in yoga is what ultimately pulled me towards tackling this book. I anticipate that it will take me several readings in order to properly digest it all. Still, even having said that, this book is not the easiest read. I find much the same fault with this book as I did with Mark Singleton's book, "Yoga Body". When will writers of history learn that a picture is worth a thousand words? There is not a single gra First, I have to admit that history is not the easiest topic for me to read. My interest in yoga is what ultimately pulled me towards tackling this book. I anticipate that it will take me several readings in order to properly digest it all. Still, even having said that, this book is not the easiest read. I find much the same fault with this book as I did with Mark Singleton's book, "Yoga Body". When will writers of history learn that a picture is worth a thousand words? There is not a single graph or timeline in the entire book. It would have been of enormous benefit to see a timeline of when certain individuals lived, overlaid what eras that particular versions of the text were currently in vogue. The text is hard to follow because of the constant onslaught of so many unfamiliar new names and dates. After several opening chapters, I still can't distinguish my Blavatsky from my Colebrooke. Secondly, while there is an overall general progression through time with the text, throughout the author does jump around from century to century back and forth through time from within the chapters. The mental filing system quickly gets overwhelmed if the people mentioned are not already familiar to the reader and the author constantly switches time-frames. The book does eventually get easier to read as the names of the people and the topics of discussion get closer and closer to present day. The early chapters are centered around trying to discover who actually authored the earlier texts of the Yoga Sutras? Who was Patanjali? When did he really live? Who was Vasya? Who were the early commentators of the text? Etc. With the beginning chapters being difficult to digest, at times it was hard to soldier on and keep reading. It wasn't until the familiar name of Vivekananda’s surfaces in Chapter seven, that my gumption started to be recharged. Except for the brief break of the oddly placed chapter eight, from chapter seven on to the end, the rest of the book revived and held my interest. Chapter ten, titled "Ishvara" stands out in particular. Many readers can skip the first nine chapters and pick up here where the author notes: "For most of the nineteenth century..., Patanjali's work was, for the most part, instrumentalized by various and sundry philosophers, mystics, and reformers for their own ulterior motives." If you are really curious about their motives, you can go back and read the early chapters, otherwise just start reading in chapter ten. The book rounds out with a series of questions surrounding the authenticity of Krishnamacharya's scholarship on the Yoga Sutras as presented in the biographies written by T.K.V. Desikachar and A.G. Mohan. The inconsistencies of the time-lines presented in those biographies creates an air of dishonesty around the biographers and places them in an unfavorable light. This only serves to make Krishnamacharya more into myth, rather than honoring the importance of the work done by Krishnamacharya the man. What can be said about the Yoga Sutras after reading this biography, is that the heritage and authenticity of the sutras is much more complex and disjointed than you are likely to find explained in your modern asana class, yoga magazine article, or 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training manual. Like many of the revered texts of old, there may never have been, one single source text from one single author for which we now claim to have an unmodified definitive volume.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Piotr

    This is an academic book dealing with the history of Yoga Sutra and its significance both now and in the past. It's an interesting read for someone interested in yoga and it's a great way to balance one's views on the subject. For most readers it's not necessary to study this book, just browse it to get the general idea. I think that the reasons why Yoga Sutra is more important now then before is worth contemplating. I also see a very obvious similarities to some of ideas presented in Corpus Her This is an academic book dealing with the history of Yoga Sutra and its significance both now and in the past. It's an interesting read for someone interested in yoga and it's a great way to balance one's views on the subject. For most readers it's not necessary to study this book, just browse it to get the general idea. I think that the reasons why Yoga Sutra is more important now then before is worth contemplating. I also see a very obvious similarities to some of ideas presented in Corpus Hermeticum which is of significance for Western Esoteric Traditions. Yoga Sutra shouldn't be praised like the Holy Bible but it should be viewed as it was: an obscure instruction about hidden powers of the mind and methods of unlocking them.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Karen

    A lot of this was over my head, as it is a kind of philosophy I'm not familiar with, with a history I don't know. However, the outline of the story of the Yoga Sutra is fascinating in a shadowy way, and the methods historians use to deduce facts that are hidden are interesting to read about. There are also centuries of colorful characters involved in the story of the Yoga Sutra, leading up to the luminaries of the 20th century, Krishnamacharya, B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois. The book is writt A lot of this was over my head, as it is a kind of philosophy I'm not familiar with, with a history I don't know. However, the outline of the story of the Yoga Sutra is fascinating in a shadowy way, and the methods historians use to deduce facts that are hidden are interesting to read about. There are also centuries of colorful characters involved in the story of the Yoga Sutra, leading up to the luminaries of the 20th century, Krishnamacharya, B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois. The book is written in an approachable style and I enjoyed reading it on lunch breaks, on the bus, and before bed.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Bob Peru

    pretty much for the cognoscenti, but the cognoscenti is growing seems like. i was a student of Gerald james Larson, so i get all this. parampara and all. all in all, i found white's explication limpid and at times intentionally funny. i would highly recommend this book. pretty much for the cognoscenti, but the cognoscenti is growing seems like. i was a student of Gerald james Larson, so i get all this. parampara and all. all in all, i found white's explication limpid and at times intentionally funny. i would highly recommend this book.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Matt Hahn

    A truly fascinating read that flows far better than most of White's other books. The last chapter is amazing. A truly fascinating read that flows far better than most of White's other books. The last chapter is amazing.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Richard

    An Historical look at the history of Patanjali. I usually like menstrual blood and demons in my yoga books but it is always nice to see what the squares have gotten up to.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Tammy

    Extremely tough read. Not sure I'd recommend. Extremely tough read. Not sure I'd recommend.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Scott Rennie

  18. 5 out of 5

    Paul

  19. 5 out of 5

    Teodor Sebastian

  20. 5 out of 5

    Michel

  21. 5 out of 5

    FrancisR

  22. 5 out of 5

    Julian

  23. 5 out of 5

    Sajith Buvi

  24. 5 out of 5

    Megan Klauck

  25. 4 out of 5

    Sabeen

  26. 5 out of 5

    Parakh Hoon

  27. 5 out of 5

    Sondos

  28. 5 out of 5

    Russ & chiara

  29. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

  30. 4 out of 5

    Krysti

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