“About Patanjali’s life very little, if anything, can be said.” 1
A biography of Patanjali could almost begin and end with this simple statement. As with other great teachers, such as Lao Tzu, for instance, what we know of Patanjali as an individual cannot be said to be anything more than tradition and legend. Yet there are important facets of his life that must be addressed at the outset of any biography.
Thus we may begin by addressing two related points of debate among modern scholars. The first is the date of Patanjali’s life and the second is the question of the sole authorship of both the Yoga Sutras and the Mahabhasya (the commentary on Panini’s grammar)—but as we’ll see, these two points are intimately related.
We find that there is a similar conflict in the dates assigned to Patanjali as seen with Sankaracharya. Conclusions as to Patanjali’s date vary wildly, each with their own manner of reasoning. 2 The majority of modern scholars, however, have tended to place Patanjali in the 2nd century BCE, but here we seem to have the case of two Patanjali’s being confounded as one. 3 In the Preface to his interpretation of the Aphorisms of Patanjali (the Yoga Sutras), William Quan Judge, after giving a brief biography of Patanjali, writes:
“But there is also another Patanjali mentioned in the Indian books. He was born in India at Gonarda … Prof. Goldstucker has concluded that this later Patanjali wrote about 140 B.C. His writings were commentaries upon the great grammarian Panini … He must not be confounded with our Patanjali; of the latter all that we have is the Philosophy set forth in the Aphorisms.” 1
It is this tendency to mix Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, with Patanjali, the author of the Mahabhasya (and of popular biographical accounts) 4 that has led the former to be dated at the time of the latter. Otherwise, there is no evidence to demonstrate that the author of the Yoga Sutras belongs in that century.
In the Theosophical Glossary of H.P. Blavatsky, we read:
“Patanjali (Sk.). The founder of the Yoga philosophy. The date assigned to him by the Orientalists is 200 b.c.; and by the Occultists nearer to 700 than 600 b.c. At any rate he was a contemporary of Pânini.” 5
T. Subba Row, in his article on Sankaracharya 6 places the birth of that great Advaita teacher at 510 BCE, and equates Patanjali with Govinda Yogi, Sankara’s guru. An alternative view to this, presented by T. S. Narayana Shastry 7, is that Patanjali was an early guru of Gaudapada, who became the guru of Govinda Yogi, who became the guru of Sankaracharya (who Shastry similarly places at 509 BCE). This latter view would seem to conform closer to the dates H. P. Blavatsky gives for Patanjali in her glossary. As there is ample evidence to place the original Sankaracharya at the turn of the 6th-5th century BCE 8, and as Patanjali was certainly prior to him, we see no issue with viewing the author of the Yoga Sutras as living as early as the 6th century BCE.
Two points we need also be aware of are:
1) that the Yoga Sutras may or may not have been recorded in writing during the time of Patanjali. With much Vedic literature, of various traditions, sutras were memorized and passed on orally for many generations prior to being set in writing. It is quite possible for centuries to have passed before his great work was ever physically recorded. And,
2) that Patanjali is also a surname and a name attached to a lineage of teachers. Additionally, in India, as elsewhere in ancient times (as with Hermes, for example), it was common for later writers to attribute their works to one original great teacher, and also for later writers to attempt to build up the grandure of their own teacher by combining multiple guru-stories into one.
With these ideas in mind, it becomes easily understandable that two or three Patanjalis could be merged into one by later commentators and followers, and the biographical legends both blended and exaggerated.
Apart from these considerations, what do these legends of Patanjali say of him?
William Quan Judge gives us a synopsis in his brief biography: 1
“In the Rudra Jamala, the Vrihannandikeśwara and the Padma-Purana are some meager statements, more or less legendary, relating to his birth. Ilavrita-Varsha is said to have been his birthplace, his mother being Sati the wife of Angiras. The tradition runs that upon his birth he made known things past, present and future, showing the intellect and penetration of a sage while yet an infant. He is said to have married one Lolupa, whom he found in the hollow of a tree on the north of Sumeru, and thereafter to have lived to a great age. On one occasion, being insulted by the inhabitants of Bhotabhandra while he was engaged in religious austerities, he reduced them to ashes by fire from his mouth.
That these accounts are legendary and symbolical can be easily seen.”
Various other legends appear in biographies of Patanjali, often interpreted and mixed with stories of the later Patanjali, and while we will gain little strictly historical insight from these, we will certainly gain a sense of the importance that has been placed on Patanjali as one of the great gurus of ancient India. 9 Ultimately we may simply echo Judge’s statement already given that of Patanjali “all that we have is the Philosophy set forth in the Aphorisms.” As we must recognize with all great sages of our distant past, the dry history of the sage is of no importance when placed beside the teachings he left behind. 10 Let us therefore turn to the philosophy of Yoga and seek greater context from which we may better understand the role of this great teacher.
For the continuation of this article see: “Introduction to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.”
^2. See, for instance, two such examples:
The Age of Patanjali, by N. Bhashyacharya (1915), which concludes: “that he lived without any doubt between the 9th and 10th centuries B.C.”
The Yoga-System of Patanjali by James Haughton Woods (1914), Introduction, which argues for the date of the composition of the Yoga Sutras as “between A.D. 300 and A.D. 500”.
^3. While there are traditions that maintain that both the Mahabhasya and the Yoga Sutras were authored by the same individual (see, for instance, Light on Patanjali Yoga Sutras by Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar.), the first available written record that (according to some interpretations) makes this claim is from Bhojadeva’s Rajamartanda, a 10th century CE commentary on the Yoga Sutras. Within the two works themselves there is no indication of single-authorship, and the difference in both literary style and content makes single-authorship very doubtful.
See The Yoga-System of Patanjali by James Haughton Woods (1914), Introduction, part 1. Authorship of the Yoga-sutras.—Identity of Patanjali, author of the sutras, and of Patanjali, author of the Mahabhasya, not yet proved.
See also Patanjali: Codifier of the Yoga Sutras, which states:
“While the scholars debate the actual dates of Patanjali, oral tradition accounts for the apparent time differences by explaining that the name Patanjali is a surname, and is the name of a lineage and school of teachers, students, and sages, rather than being only one person.” Etc.
^4. See Patanjali Charita (aka Patanjali-vijaya) by Ramabhadra Dikshita, composed in the 17th century CE, which amalgamates legends of Patanjali into a poetic story. The text does not appear to be a reliable historical source, as extensive poetic license seems to have been taken by the author (for example, see comments by Dr. Vidyasankar Sundaresan (a modern Advaitin scholar) here). Unfortunately, this work is not readily available in a complete English translation. (see footnote 9)
^5. Panini, the great Sanskrit grammarian, whose work, the Ashtadhyayi (of which the Mahabhasya of the later Patanjali is a commentary upon), is commonly dated to the 6th century BCE.
^6. See “Sankara’s Date and Doctrine”, by T. Subba Row, The Theosophist, September, 1883. Reprinted in Blavatsky Collected Works, Volume 5, Pages 176-197, and in Five Years of Theosophy, Pages 278-308. (for the portion regarding Patanjali see below)
However, it must be noted that while Sastry places Patanjali in the 6th century BCE, he also presents him as the author of both the Yoga Sutras and the Mahabhasya.
^9. For several of these legends, see the following:
Light on Patanjali Yoga Sutras by Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar.
The Age of Sankara, by T. S. Narayana Sastry, 1971 (reprint of 1916 original), p. 35, 50-54.
Patanjali Unplugged, by Kausthub Desikachar.
^10. Paramahansa Yogananda observed: “Patanjali’s date is unknown, though a number of scholars place him in the second century B.C. The rishis gave forth treatises on all subjects with such insight that ages have been powerless to outmode them; yet, to the subsequent consternation of historians, the sages made no effort to attach their own dates and personalities to their literary works. They knew their lives were only temporarily important as flashes of the great infinite Life; and that truth is timeless, impossible to trademark, and no private possession of their own.”—Autobiography of a Yogi, Ch. 24, fn.4