Transcript of MIPodcast #13

MIPodcast #13

What’s the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, with David Gordon White

Go HERE to listen to this episode.

BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m your host, Blair Hodges. Thank you so much for listening to another episode. This is another installment of my podcast series on “The Lives of Great Religious Books” series from Princeton University Press. This is a series that takes important religious texts from around the world and tells their life stories. Leading experts examine the origins of religious texts like the Book of Genesis, or Thomas Aquinas’ Summa theologiae, and then they trace how their reception, influence, and interpretation of these texts has changed over time.

In this episode David Gordon White joins me. He’s a professor of comparative religion at UC Santa Barbara. His book looks at the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. It’s a collection of aphorisms that occupies a prestigious place among contemporary Yogis in the United States. Its current success though belies its humble origins, White says. The book’s risen and fallen in prominence in India and in various places throughout the world for different Buddhists and Hindu communities. David Gordon White tells this story, and along the way we discuss what it’s like for a scholar who has also been a practitioner to look at the transmission of scripture over centuries of time. We examine scripture from an Eastern tradition in order to get a better understanding of the nature of scripture in general.

It’s David Gordon White on the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali in this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast.


BLAIR HODGES: Alright. We welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast David Gordon White. He’s the J.F. Rowny Professor of Comparative religion at the University of California Santa Barbara. How long have you been teaching there, David?

DAVID GORDON WHITE: Seventeen years at Santa Barbara.


HODGES: Okay. So you’ve been there quite a while then. During that time you’ve edited a book called Yoga in Practice and then you also wrote a book called Sinister Yogis. Your latest book is the one that we’re going to be talking about in the podcast today. It’s about the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. So that’s the book we’re talking about. It’s part of Princeton’s “Lives of Great Religious Books” series. The Yoga Sutra is a text that I wasn’t familiar with until I read your book. So a lot of my listeners are probably in the same boat. So I want to kind of lay some preliminary groundwork and I’ll probably need some of your help pronouncing a lot of the words.

So if you were to give kind of a back-cover description of what the Yoga Sutra is, how would you describe what that text is to someone who wasn’t familiar with it?

WHITE: It’s one hundred and ninety-five verses on practice of meditation as a means to calming the mind in order that the soul, or the spirit, be released from its mistaken identification with matter, which comprises everything else in the world, including the mind. So I’ll back up a little bit. The Yoga Sutra is a foundational work of the Philosophical School of Yoga, in Hindu India. Traditionally there are six such philosophical schools. Yoga is one of those six, and it’s often paired with another of those schools called Samkhya, which is a term that may be translated as “enumeration.”

Both Yoga and Samkhya, and for that matter all six of the schools, have for their goal salvation, release of humans from suffering existence. What they’re released into is a question that is answered differently by the six different schools. In some cases you’re released into union with God. In the case of the Yoga and Samkhya schools you’re released from suffering existence but there is no absolute out there to be released into. It’s just the end of suffering. The end of identification of the self, or the soul, or the spirit with matter, which includes the body, includes the mind, and includes houses and people and so forth.

HODGES: So it sounds like it kind of has like a metaphysical element to it in terms of talking about what the world is like, how we fit into that, and also like a practice element. And Yoga, most people think of is what one might do at the gym or something. But this is more sort of organized practice around a more specific end, which is some sort, as you say, salvation or release.


WHITE: It’s a metaphysical text before all else, as are the major texts of the other five schools. It is about man, the universe, and everything. Causation, salvation, supernatural powers which are not supernatural in the context of the system as it stands. It was a theory of everything, like our modern theoretical physics theories of everything are. There should not be any internal contradictions and so forth. So, yes, it is a metaphysical text with imbedded in it thirty-one verses, if I’m not mistaken, on practice. So of the one hundred and ninety-five verses, thirty-one are on what’s called the eight-part practices, Ashtanga Yoga. Those are basically the kind of step-by-step path that a practitioner would take in his or her meditation to realize an immediate non-discursive, non-conceptual way, the freedom of their spirit or soul from matter.

So those eight parts of the practice are comprised of the inner and outer restraints. Basically, keep your body healthy, live a good life. Posture, which is what most people consider yoga to be. Breathing, which also people know about. And then the other four are these deepening meditative states, so Pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses. Dharana, holding the mind in one-pointed concentration. Dhyana, meditation. And Samadhi, total meditative integration, which is kind of both the eighth part of practice and the final result of that practice.

Now having said that, you could not pattern your modern day practice, either of postures or meditation, on the basis of the Yoga Sutra. Those sutras, those aphorisms, are so elliptical, so difficult to comprehend. They’re basically just sort of, you could say, hooks to hang your ideas on, to remember this is what I do next. But in and of themselves they’re not a guide to practice. Is ay that in spite, or in the face of what most Yoga gurus in the modern yoga world will say, which is that the Yoga Sutra is our guide to practice. They’re saying that on the basis of incomplete information.


HODGES: So is it a text that the regular practitioners then would read? With Christians they read the Bible and they kind of give a devotional lift out of that. With Jews they read the Hebrew Scriptures and their laws there and sort of the community is organized around that. So with this, is it a book that everyday practitioners of yoga then would read, or is it something that they’re more likely to encounter through a Yogi or some sort of advisor, spiritual advisor?

WHITE: In the modern day context, it’s a text that modern day practitioners turn to for guidance. That’s because the last forty years Yoga gurus, both Indian and Western, have singled out the Yoga Sutra as a guide to practice. In the traditional context of ancient and medieval India, there’s virtually no evidence that it was used as a guide to practice as we understand it today. So this is a twentieth and twenty-first century invention that is widely embraced, but nonetheless it has no historical grounds.

HODGES: So at the Maxwell Institute we focus on religious texts from a variety of religious traditions, but here we’ve tended to focus on the text of Judaism, Christianity, and some Islamic texts as well. Each of those traditions sort of have their own idea of what scripture is. I think scripture, using that word, it’s a category that maybe in the past I haven’t reflected very deeply on. Reading more about your book sort of made me revisit that idea again.

So I’d like you to talk about the Yoga Sutra in the context of scripture. A review I read of your book referred to the Yoga Sutra as a spiritual text. It didn’t use the word scripture. I’m interested in your thoughts of how it might compare to, say, Christian’s view of the Bible, or Muslim’s view of the Qur’an, something like that.


WHITE: Sure. First a little context. Yoga Sutra is one of hundreds of texts on yoga. The Philosophical School of Yoga is one of a dozen or so major schools of yoga, each of which had its own text or texts of their foundational teachings. Now, what is scripture in Hindu or Indian context? In fact, that which is considered to be most authentic in Hindu India is that which was revealed orally, and therefore that which is transmitted orally. That category of teaching or revelation is called Shruti, which means “that which was heard,” not “that which was written,” or “that which was read,” but that which was heard. So of course these things were committed to writing at a certain point.

All other “scripture” in the Hindu and generally speaking South Asian context is called Smriti, “that which was recalled or remembered.” We can translate that as tradition. So Shruti is revelation, oral revelation. Smriti is recalled tradition. Both Shruti and Smriti are written down at a certain point, at which point they become something like scripture. But there’s an important distinction, with respect to the Yoga Sutra, because the Yoga Sutra was not a revealed text. It makes no such claim. Until, again, the late twentieth century no Indian yoga teacher made the claim that the Yoga Sutra was a revealed text by God to an exemplary human or a sage or a guru of some sort. It was written by, or compiled by a human named Patanjali, and there was never any debate about that until recent times where there has been sort of a Patanjali mythology that has been generated and claims to direct revelation, oral revelation.

That has led to a whole new body of practice among a certain segment of yoga practitioners, which is to chant the Yoga Sutras, chant them in a precise Sanskrit because according to this invented tradition, the Yoga Sutras were in a sense revealed by God to Patanjali and that continued revelation has been transmitted from guru to disciple across thousands of years. None of that is true, in terms of what historical data tells us. But that is the modern-day, well, among a certain segment of the population that’s the modern-day belief.


HODGES: I want to get more into that question of origins a little later on in the interview. Before we do I’d like you to also talk about then, you’ve separated the difference between something written, something revealed, sort of a tradition versus revelation type of a thing. Now how about the idea of a religion in general? Because a scripture, we typically associate that with a religion. So it seems from what you’re saying that the Yoga Sutra maybe wouldn’t necessarily be understood as a “religious text” during certain parts of its existence, and then in other times it would be more “religious.”

How would you understand it in terms of religion? It’s a difficult term to define to begin with, but if you can maybe touch on that idea, how it fit in with the idea of religion.

WHITE: At different times, in different periods in the history of South Asian religions, the Yoga Sutra has been taken to be a text in conformity with Hindu religion, and at other times a text that was non-conforming with orthodoxy. There was a period in the Middle Ages where the Yoga Sutras were singled out along with another group of texts as a heterodox, as not being proper to Orthodox Hinduism, this in the most Orthodox manuals of Hindu practice of the time called the Dharmasutras. Then in other contexts in other places it is sort of enshrined in the Hindu tradition.

What’s somewhat ironic is that the closer scholars looked at the language and teachings of the Yoga Sutras, the more they’re inclined to see that it was in part a text that emerged out of a Buddhist context. Buddhism is not Hinduism, unless Protestantism is Catholicism, and I don’t believe the two are the same. So even the Hindu-ness of the Yoga Sutra is open for some scrutiny.

In fact, we will probably get back to this, but once Swami Vivekananda popularized the Yoga Sutra in the west in the turn of the twentieth century, late 1800s, early 1900s. He singled it out because he saw it to be a text that transcended what was free of the trappings of religion. He saw it as a philosophical scientific text that he could take to the west and present as an Indian mode of scientific rational enquiry that was not burdened with the sort of trappings of religion. So many voices, many conflicting interpretations of whether or to what extent the Yoga Sutra is a religious, as opposed to a philosophical text. I can’t really make that fine grain judgment for myself. I’m a historian and I’m interested in how people have made that judgment over time. And the answer is it’s changed.


HODGES: I think that speaks to the purpose of your book here, is the idea of writing a biography of a book, which is what this entire series is, is to look at the life of a book and I think the more you look at a book in terms of the different ways it’s interpreted across time and in different places, different eras and different cultures will bring their own assumptions to the text, and that can change the text while also the text can help impact particular cultures.

So it really raises that interesting question about whether a text like the Yoga Sutra has had an essential core to it that’s preserved across these borders over time. This is a really interesting question. You tend to, throughout the book, sort of avoid the idea that there maybe is a fundamentally essential core. But there is one point when you find one interpreter who’s interpretation you’re particularly drawn to. It’s almost as though you still kind of hope for the ability to uncover the essential core to the text. If you can talk about that, because I think it’s a tendency that’s really easy to fall back into, is to uncover the true core of a text without recognizing the ways it can be interpreted in many different environments.

WHITE: You’re referring to Rajendralal Mitra’s 1884 translation and study of the Yoga Sutra, which was a landmark achievement. What I like about his translation and his analysis of the text is that he is more concise than anyone prior to or posterior to him in the sense that he does not slavishly follow the order of the sutras to just sort of give a running commentary of this sutra means X, this sutra means Y, this sutra means Z, but without connecting the dots. Instead, he managed to somehow digest the teachings of the sutra and then give them back in a set of seventeen philosophical points, which are much more amenable at least to modern thinking than the Yoga Sutras in and of themselves were. So it’s much clearer in the way he presents it. What he’s doing is he’s presenting the teachings completely out of order from the way they’re found in the Yoga Sutra itself.

So in that respect, yes, Dave or Mitra’s reading you speak of an essential core. Once again, the Yoga Sutra is a metaphysical work. One would hope that it would have a coherent set of postulates and axioms that don’t contradict one another, and it’s very hard to find that by just reading them sutra one to sutra one ninety-five. Mitra has sort of found a way to make that look coherent. I say look because these were not perfect systems any more than modern theories of everything by astrophysics. If you can accept that ninety-nine percent of the universe is comprised of dark matter and that it’s got twenty-eight dimensions, well then you’re okay with the modern theoretical physics. Same thing with these old Indian metaphysical systems. They were not perfect. The yoga system perhaps was less perfect then some of the others as presented in the Yoga Sutra.


HODGES: That’s David Gordon White. He’s the author of a biography of Yoga Sutra of Patanjali.

WHITE: Patanjali.

HODGES: Patanjali. I’m never going to get that right. He’s the author of a biography of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. So you’ve been referred to as a prolific and controversial scholar here. So one reviewer that I was looking at points out that some readers who currently practice yoga themselves might be unsettled by some of your account because you debunk some of the so-called myths surrounding things like the text’s origins, or its centrality, or lack of centrality, to the tradition of yoga over the centuries. Do you think controversial is a fair description of your work, or is that more a polemical way of looking at what you’ve done here?

WHITE: No, it’s a fair description. I should add that this is my fourth book on yoga. You mentioned Sinister Yogis, which was the third. Prior to that I wrote a book called Kiss of the Yogani: “Tantric Sex” in its South Asian Contexts and prior to that a book called The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. All four of the books treat different schools of yoga in that sweep of history of yoga. There were many yogas going back to the second millennium B.C.E. down to the modern times.

I didn’t start any of these projects saying I’m going to rewrite the history on XYZ, but in the process of doing the research and writing, in each case I have come up with contrarian readings of these traditions. Contrary not only with respect to the scholarly paragons, but also popular and in many cases the cherished beliefs of practicing Hindus in India, who because they are insiders they of course want to view their tradition as timeless and unchanging, the same as when it was revealed to the sages four thousand years ago as now.

Whereas as a historian I have to look at how these traditions have changed over time, interacted with one another, interacted with foreign traditions in some cases, and in fact there have been many yogas and you cannot square the circle. They are utterly different from one another. The version that’s being projected by the mainstream of the yoga subculture nowadays, it’s a fragmentary one and in many respects historically without basis.


HODGES: How about practitioner scholars? Are there any scholars in the field that also practice yoga that have also had to confront, as you say, a deconstruction of some of the claims that some Yogis make? Do you work together with many of those? Have you practiced yoga at all? What are your thoughts on a practitioner scholar’s place in the conversation?

WHITE: I have practiced yoga. In fact, you can see me in a raised lotus posture on my webpage at the university. I know many practicing yoga scholars. It’s a relatively small field, yoga studies. There’s perhaps one hundred of us all together. Maybe more. I would say a good half of the people who write on yoga also practice. I do address that in the first and second chapters of the book.

I believe that they are now somewhat skewed by the fact that they are practitioners. They really want certain things to be true about the Yoga Sutra as part of that tradition that, again, historical analysis would, to my mind, contradict. Much of their work is outstanding. They’re the best at, for example, translating or providing a semantic field in which to locate the terms found in the Yoga Sutras. The very arcane uses of the Sanskrit terms in the sutras can’t just be understood by opening a dictionary. You have to find those same terms in other philosophical religious contexts and sort of tease out a semantic range of that term to try to get to what it might have meant in Patanjali’s time. Many of these scholar practitioners are just outstanding at that. They tend to be working from an assumption that the Yoga Sutra is a foundational scripture of yoga practices, and there I part ways with them.


HODGES: Overall the book tells a story, again the story of sort of the life of the Yoga Sutra, and you trace the rise and then a fall and then a rise again of the Yoga Sutra. This is a text that had a heyday and then sort of went away and then came back again. So let’s talk about the origin first. This is a contested story. Maybe this is part of the controversial area of study there, is sort of how the Yoga Sutra came about. So what’s interesting is that I’ve got a quote here that you write in the book. You say, “We can be certain of a number of things about the Yoga Sutra. That the book you have been reading is the reception history of a work that may or may not be titled the Yoga Sutra, that the author of that work may or may not have been named Patanjali, and that that work may or may not have been the subject of an original and separate commentary by a person probably not named Vyasa.”

So you start of by saying, I don’t know, maybe none of this. So talk about that. The origins and sort of these unanswered questions.

WHITE: Well in terms of origins, it’s generally agreed that it’s a compilation. It wasn’t an original text written by a single person or revealed to a single person by the divine.

HODGES: Quickly, what kind of clues do they look at to discern that?

WHITE: Themes, language are the principle clues that they look at. So depending on which scholar you adhere to, the Yoga Sutra is a compilation between two and six different strands, or two and six different sources. The two-source period is the one that has the most adherence present, and I’ve already referred to that. The two sources being the hundred and sixty or so verses on metaphysics and the thirty-one verses or so on eight-fold practice, Ashtanga Yoga. It’s fairly generally agreed that those were two separate sets of teachings that were put together. But others would say there were as many as six different sets of teaching that were compiled.

Now, was Patanjali, whose name is most often attached to the Yoga Sutra, was he its original author? I don’t know if we’ll ever know that. Patanjali’s not that uncommon of a name in Sanskrit. There are two other important commentaries on other types of texts written by a figure named Patanjali. However, those commentaries were written at about a thousand year’s distance from one another. So the dating of our Patanjali is difficult. If he had anything to do with those other texts, one is a commentary on a medical text, the other a commentary on a grammatical text.

HODGES: What date do you put the Yoga Sutra at?

WHITE: Well, somewhere between the first and fourth centuries of the Common Era. The first centuries C.E. For those who argue that Patanjali and the original Yoga Sutra was more Buddhist than Hindu, it’s the earlier date that is around first century. For those who feel it’s a Hindu text and that Patanjali wrote his own commentary to that text and used a kind of pen name, Vyasa, which means simply “the editor,” to that commentary then it’s the fourth century date that people would claim. So, yeah, right from the start the origins of the Yoga Sutra are murky. That’s not so unusual in India.


HODGES: How about the oral element? Because that’s one of the things that current practitioners would point to, to say, David’s talking about the written version of it. But there’s this oral tradition because it was a chanted thing. So what about the oral? That’s something we obviously can’t recapture, right? Because we only have the written text.

WHITE: That’s right. So you can only go so far with claims of oral transmission because they don’t leave a trace. What does leave a trace are references to oral transmission. You have this rich commentarial literature. There are about a dozen major commentaries on the Yoga Sutras written over a period of about fifteen centuries, and then there are several minor commentaries. There are works of other philosophical schools. There’s literature. There’s any number of sources one can go to to find references to the teachings of the Yoga Sutra and how they were transmitted. And nowhere is it said that this is something that is transmitted orally, transmitted by chanting.

On the other hand, the word “sutra” generally means an aphoristic teaching that requires a commentary, which is often given orally by a guru to that guru’s disciples.

HODGES: So the sutra’s like a string, right? That’s what the word means.

WHITE: That’s correct. It’s like a thread upon which are hung pearls, and each pearl is one of those one hundred and ninety-five aphorisms. But there just isn’t much of a there there in terms of the oral transmission of the Yoga Sutra specifically. So in the absence of that we can’t assert that it was transmitted orally.

Again, because it wasn’t classified as revelation, there would have been no perceived requirement to transmit orally. Only fruti, only revelation is required to be transmitted orally and Yoga Sutra is not fruti. Furthermore, as a side light, there are many other, we can call them scriptures, on yoga over the centuries were considered to be more important than the Yoga Sutras. There as well we have this disconnect between the modern interpretation and earlier ones. The teachings on yoga in the Bhagavad Gita are considered to be revelation because the god Krishna revealed them in that text. Then there are several other works on yoga that, while not revelation perhaps, had a greater following than the Yoga Sutras for many centuries. Now, shall we get back to sort of the rise and fall—


HODGES: Yes. So, yes. So that’s kind of it then. So part of the rise and then the fall, I think, is associated with the different theistic and non-theistic ways that you trace throughout your book of interpreting the text. So people sometimes read the book as though it includes a deity of some kind, others didn’t. So in talking about the rise and fall, talk about those theistic and non-theistic ways of reading.

WHITE: That’s very difficult. The earliest commentator, if he was an individual distinct from Patanjali, Vyasa… the key term here that may or may not be construed as a reverence to deity in the Yoga Sutras is ishvara. It’s a word that means lord or master. At the time that the Yoga Sutras were written or compiled there those first centuries of the Common Era, the term ishva raajali meant a human master, or lord, a king, a prince, a warlord. Something like that. It’s only toward the end of that period that it starts to be used to be applied to a deity. So you have many references in earlier literature to ishva raj in the plural, lots of masters, lots of lords. It’s only in this sort of pivotal period in which the other sutras were probably compiled that ishva begins to be applied to God. Another source for that transition is the Bhagavad Gita that I mentioned a moment ago, which is a revealed text in which Krishna calls himself the master of yoga. He’s the divine master of yoga because he’s god. So in that respect we said okay, that word ishva here means a god of yoga.

But Vyasa, the original commentator on the Yoga Sutras, does not say that. He says ishva is simply an enlightened being, a master, a teacher, whom one seeks guidance from, whom one venerates but not as a god, because he didn’t create the universe. He will not destroy the universe. He is simply a figure of great insight who has never been subject to the suffering of existence that other humans have been subject to. So that interpretation of that word in the Yoga Sutra originally clearly not considered a deity, but then as you move forward through time, particularly from about the twelfth century onward, where another school of philosophy called Vedanta was adapted to the most widely popular form of deistic, or I should say most widely popular form of Hindu theism.

HODGES: So this is also in India as well?


WHITE: That’s right. It’s also in Hindu India as well. Hindu theism is basically built upon, Vedanta school’s understanding of the universe as being composed of God and nothing else, with all creatures a part of that God, and only cosmic illusion separating creatures from God. It’s the illusion that creatures have that they are somehow separate from God because they have, they think, separate bodies and so forth. That keeps them separate from God, but in fact God is within every one of us in the form of a little miniature form of himself, a spark of life. That is our true essence, and as soon as we realize that then we are one with God, as we always already were in fact.

That’s at total odds with the teachings of Samkhya and Yoga philosophy which say there is no absolute, and all there is is a multiplicity of souls or spirits trapped in matter, and the goal of practice is to release the spirit from matter but not release it into an absolute, into an ishvara. But as you move forward in time that Vedanta philosophy paired with Hindu theism became the only game in town. It was a tidal wave that engulfed all the other philosophical systems. With one exception which was Nyaya, logic, because you still needed the system of logic to know how to develop an argument and debate an argument. So it continued to be taught in Hindi seminaries well beyond sort of the death of all the other systems.


HODGES: Okay. So that’s a good general overview. Now how does the Yoga Sutra itself fitting into the story have its rise and then fall, sort of disappear off the radar?

WHITE: Yeah. Well, for about five centuries from about the seventh or the twelfth, the Yoga Sutra was treated with great seriousness and approbation by nature Hindu commentators. It was referenced by philosophers and theologians from other Indian schools, considered to be important and significant. It was actually translated into two foreign languages, which I don’t believe any other Indian philosophical text was or has been since. Back in the eleventh century it was translated into Arabic and Old Javanese. It was also adapted into the works of commentators from another important South Asian religion, Jainism, there are two Jain commentaries on the Yoga Sutra that were written in that same period.

So the Yoga Sutra enjoyed a period of great respect and general dissemination during that five-century period, but towards the end of that period we see several sources beginning to tweak the teachings of the Yoga Sutra to make them conform to Vedanta philosophy and Hindu theism. You can only change something so far before it becomes something else. That’s what the history of the Yoga Sutras from that twelfth century period forward are basically a chronicle of, the basic engulfing of yoga philosophy within Vedanta philosophy, under which circumstances yoga philosophy is so denatured that it no longer is yoga philosophy. So the later commentators on the Yoga Sutra were basically reading against the original teachings.

There’s a whole body of Hindu scripture called the Puranas that also did the same thing. Those would have been the guides to practicing Hindus much more so than philosophical commentaries and the accounts that the Puranas gave of yoga is, even as they continued to apply certain terms from the Yoga Sutras, a purely Vedantic one. It’s about how to find union with the god within. Furthermore those Puranic sources do no mention Patanjali. They basically censor his name from their accounts of yoga philosophy and yoga practice.

HODGES: So here we have a text then that had a pretty substantial following and then sort of dropped off the radar. We’re going to take a break really quick and when we come back we’ll talk about the rise of the Yoga Sutra.

I’m speaking today with David Gordon White. He’s in California today. He wrote a book, A Biography of the Yoga Sutra. We’ll take a break and be right back.


HODGES: Hey, this is Blair Hodges. First I want to thank you for listening to the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m interrupting my own interview to invite you to help me out. I’m not asking for a lot. I’m just asking you to take a moment to rate this show in the iTunes store. Even better, write a review on the iTunes store and tell us why you listen to the podcast. Or share a link to the episode on your Facebook wall. Tweet it. Burn a CD for your folks. Send up smoke signals. If you rate the Maxwell Institute Podcast in the iTunes store that’s the simplest way you can help us, but I also hope that you enjoy these interviews enough to let a few of your friends know about us too. Thanks again for listening.



HODGES: We’re back with David Gordon White. He’s the author of a biography of the Yoga Sutra. We just talked a little bit about the disappearance culturally of the Yoga Sutra, but it made a comeback. It’s sort of the comeback kid of the yoga texts. I want to talk about how that happened.

WHITE: Right. So the Yoga Sutra drifted into oblivion between about the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. Evidence for that is the fact that when they were “rediscovered” by an English civil servant, a British orientalist named Henry Thomas Colebrooke in the early part of the nineteenth century, there were virtually no Yoga Sutra manuscripts extant in Indian archives, in contradistinction to manuscripts on Vedanta, that philosophical school that more or less engulfed Yoga Sutra, or the yoga school that I referred to earlier. So Colebrooke was one of the British orientalists. He was one of the first non-Indians trained in Sanskrit. He became an accomplished Sanskritist and he was able to read the Yoga Sutras in the original and he wrote a short account of them and yoga philosophy in 1823. That was sort of the first blip on the radar screen of this more or less lost tradition for all intents and purposes.

HODGES: So this is sort of colonization, right? The British are sort of over there colonizing India, and then this particular person gets interested in the culture. Were there pragmatic reasons to do that, or was he just sort of interested in the culture himself?

WHITE: There was a pragmatic reason. When the British East India Company basically was granted jurisdiction over Eastern India in the late eighteenth century they realized they had to somehow draft laws and enforce justice. They didn’t think British law would work too well there so they decided to adapt to the reigning legal systems, those of the Muslims and of the Hindus in India. For Muslim law it was fairly easy because the predecessor actually at the time of the British, the Mughals were still ruling much of India, and they were a Muslim empire. They had a very developed law code, and the British could just simply refer to that law code.

For the Hindus it was harder because Hindu rule was kind of spotty in India at that point. There were still pockets of Hindu kingdoms, but there was not a Hindu empire by that time. The British decided that they couldn’t just base their interpretation of Hindu law on modern day practice, that would be too kind of scatter-shot. They felt they had to go back to the sources. There were Hindu law books, but they were written in this language of Sanskrit, which the British had no inkling of. So at first they relied on the traditional Indian Hindu scholars, called Pundits, that’s where we get our word “pundit” from, for interpretation and guidance in the Hindu law, which the Shastras, the British called it the Shaster. But after a dozen or so years the British realized that these traditional scholars, they weren’t that clear about their own sources either, so they figured the British did so they better learn Sanskrit and read the original texts themselves. So it was out of a need to render justice as equitably as possible that the British stumbled upon Sanskrit, the language of traditional Hindu religion, law, medicine, everything, just as Latin was in Europe in the medieval and pre-modern periods.

So Colebrooke was one of those early scholars, and in fact he did complete the project of writing the British law code based on Indian Hindu sources, but in the process he got interested in these other bodies of tradition that he uncovered. He was an avid devourer or collector of manuscripts, and most of those manuscripts were of the philosophical and religious sword, in addition to the legal documents, and that’s how he eventually was drawn into laying out the basic lines of ancient Indian religion and philosophy. So about twenty, thirty years into his own apprenticeship in the Sanskrit tradition he tackled the six schools of philosophies, and he began with Samkhya and Yoga in 1823.


HODGES: So then sort of more toward the end of the nineteenth century then there was sort of this renaissance in the developing academy as this idea of world religion started to get put together. There was the parliament of world religions. This sort of is when an actual person from India sort of got into the mix here. I think the name is Vivekananda. So talk about him.

WHITE: Swami Vivekananda. Yeah, he was the Indian face of this sort of interest in world religions. We should also bear in mind that there was a European face in India too that interest in that word. That was the theosophical society. Madame Blavatsky went to India and she translated, interpreted the teachings of India into a sort of spiritualist mode that westerners could get their heads around. Of course she got just about everything wrong, but it’s interesting that the theosophists are to be credited with having, more so than Henry Thomas Colebrooke, with having put yoga on the radar screen of both Indians and Europeans in India.

Vivekananda probably was exposed to yoga philosophy in part from the theosophists. So when he came to the world parliament of religions that was held at Chicago in 1894 and preached the gospel of reform Hinduism he used a language that people could understand, in no small part because he knew the language of theosophy. So he could talk about magnetism and energies and things like that in ways that people understood and they believed they were being schooled in Hindu thought. In a sense they were being schooled in theosophical thought with kind of Hindu trappings. And so it has been for the last one hundred or so years.

HODGES: So is he sort of cashing in on the mystique of an ancient tradition and sort of putting it in the clothing of late nineteenth century spiritualism in a sense, right? So Blavatsky had a few dealings with Mormons, for example, and it was in that same sort of vein of sort of lending an ear of intellectual sophistication. This is a scientific religion. It’s not weighed down by the trappings of religious institutions. It’s this more ancient idea that now is combining with science to make this sort of super spiritual sort of experience. So he’s kind of following their lead a little bit, but he also sort of carries the credibility of being from India.

WHITE: That’s right. He was a culture broker. The first great culture broker, I would say, representing enlightened Hindu thought to the west. So Vivekananda, apparently he put on these command performances. I think he lectured twelve or fourteen times at the world parliament and he just stole the show and became the darling of salon society in Boston and New York and the New Age movement, which was significant. The scientism of the time, which ranged from everything from Christian science to mesmerism and animal magnetism, and these sorts of séances that were being held in Boston salons and London salons. It was really a major religious mystical occurrence of the time. He fit into that and his teachings of Indian thought fit into that quite nicely.

He was solicited by the westerners, the Americans, that he was giving his lectures to to give them some sort of practical instruction and by that they had heard of yoga from him and they wanted to know how you do yoga, what are the foundations of practice. He did not practice the yoga postures, apparently, but he hit upon the Yoga Sutra as a means to a dual end as a culture broker. On the one hand he would present the Yoga Sutra as an example of Indian rationality and science that was not buried in the superstitious trappings of what he saw to be the Hinduism that he had to reform back in India, the sort of priest craft that he believed Hinduism had descended into.

So he used the Yoga Sutra, which he wrote an important book on in the last years of the nineteenth century, called The Raja Yoga, as a platform both for promoting reformed Hindu thought as rational and scientific and superior to western religion and science on the one hand, but also as a means to getting funding from the west to apply to the project of reforming Hinduism back in India. So he simultaneously founded the Vedanta society in the west to spread the teachings of rational enlightened Hinduism to westerners, and the Ramakrishna society in India for the reform of Hinduism in India. So he was able to use his writing on the Yoga Sutra and his teachings on the Yoga Sutra to that dual purpose.


HODGES: I want to add too, he made a splash with Mormon leaders. There were Mormon leaders who were at the parliament of religion. There was some difficulty there in terms of Mormons not fitting in yet because of the issue of polygamy, but they had a Mormon leader called George Q. Cannon who came back to Utah where the church was located and gave this really interesting speech and brought up Vivekananda. There’s this quote here where he says, it’s a little condescending, but he says, “Listen, these Asian religions, they’re not so imperfect and heathenish as we’ve been in the habit in this country of believing, and that holiness, purity, charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world and every system produces men and women of the most exalted character.” He was talking about Vivekananda. He walked away with this really great impression of him.

WHITE: As did most of the people that came into contact with him. He wrote the Raja Yoga, it was an overnight sensation, went into multiple editions, continues to be published widely in several translations, he wrote it in English. It’s not a very exact rendering of the Yoga Sutras. Again, it’s one that is shot through with the language of scientism, animal magnetism, mesmerism, waves, and forces and so forth. But it captured the spirit of the time and was highly successful. He died very shortly after that. He died very young. I don’t know if he just burned out from giving too many lectures or what. But he set the die for the way that we in the west have understood yoga as a philosophy and a practice. That has changed very little since then.

Interestingly in India he didn’t have much of an impact on yoga. India began its own yoga renaissance in the decades following Vivekananda’s departure to the west, but they did not include Yoga Sutra in their syntheses. Because American immigration laws were very xenophobic from the early twentieth century onward, there were virtually no Indian yoga gurus that could follow in Vivekananda’s wake until the 1960s when immigration laws were eased up. Now in Europe they didn’t have such stringent laws, particularly in Britain, which of course India by then was part of the commonwealth. So you do have yoga gurus in Britain where people like William Butler Yates, the great Irish poet, was greatly influenced by and a disciple of an Indian Yogi and they coauthored a translation of the Yoga Sutras. He wrote about yoga and Yoga Sutras in his own writings late in life. He was one of a number of western literati who became drawn to the Yoga Sutras.


HODGES: That’s how the Beatles sort of got into it too, right? So you say when it was kind of getting a lift in the 1960s, is that—

WHITE: It was a great sort of, what’s the term, it was a happy coincidence that the immigration laws were relaxed at just about the time that the Beatles went to India to meet Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I don’t know on whose urging they went to meet him, but India had sort of become the hit place to go if you were a hippie and that’s why I went to India the first time and many of my cohort of religious studies Hinduism scholars went to India in sandals and looked for God before they started the academic study of Hinduism.

So, yeah. The Beatles went there in the mid-sixties and brought Maharishi Mahesh Yogi back to the States, and he was one of the pioneers of this later generation, and many, many followed him of course and continue to follow him. And of course it’s been a two-way street for decades now as well, with many westerners going to India to study at the feet of Indian yogis who, when they’re not traveling to the west are based in places like Mysore in India. So, yes, there was that kind of happy coincidence of this in renewed or awakened interest in Indian esotericism and the releasing or lifting of many of the immigration barriers to Indians coming to the west, coming to the United States.


HODGES: So how does that bring us to the present? I can’t remember the figure that you give of practitioners in the United States today that practice yoga. How many would you say there are?

WHITE: Well I’m using other people’s figures. The most current figure is around seventeen million.

HODGES: Just in the United States alone?

WHITE: In the U.S. That’s correct. Yeah.

HODGES: So bring it up to that point in time. How is the Yoga Sutra then still used today?

WHITE: There is what is now called certification that’s required of yoga trainers in yoga studios and yoga centers across the country. They have to do so many hours of both practical and theoretical instruction. Instruction in the Yoga Sutra is part of that required training. There has to be at least some knowledge of the theoretical grounds for the practice. Now as I argue in the book, they chose the wrong text. But so be it. That has been sort of the iconic work that has been focused upon, if not fetishized, by the gurus and followers of those gurus in the modern yoga sub-culture.

They’ve all again, as I’ve said, they’ve basically taken their lead from Vivekananda, so there have been dozens of translations, interpretations, commentaries on the Yoga Sutra written by these yoga gurus, some of them western some of them Indian, which do what Vivekananda did, which is they take each verse of the sutra and then they give their interpretation of the verse, then they go on to the next one. However, they do two things that Vivekananda did. They, like Vivekananda and many commentators before him, they view the teachings of the Yoga Sutras as being teachings of a Vedanta variety, non-duelist variety, in which union with God is the goal. They say that in their translations, which again is totally counter to the original teachings of the text. Then they take the Yoga Sutra as a guide to modern-day practice. You can do that, if you take those eight-fold teachings, the Ashtanga Yoga, as the essence of the Yoga Sutras. Of course that’s the only part of the Yoga Sutras not philosophical. There as well there are many other scriptures, texts, teachings on yoga that are far more adaptable to modern practice than the Yoga Sutra itself.

You may have noticed I alternate between saying Yoga Sutra and Yoga Sutras. Both are correct.

HODGES: Because the sutras are the individual aphorisms, right?



HODGES: So I want to circle back to this idea of some of the controversies that you tackle and the wider question of doing religious scholarship. You said that you had initially got interested in this by actually going back to India and having experiences there. Now it’s been years and now you’ve got into it academically as well, and sort of had to change some of the views you had about the tradition early on, challenge some of the narratives. Some of the controversies that you tackled in the book that I could pick up on without even really having any background in there is the idea that the Yoga Sutra wasn’t all that central to yoga for a long time, that there are historically an abundance of competing interpretations of the text, that the twentieth century revival of the text is fraught with colonial politics and a little bit of fabrication here and there, maybe a little bit of marketing, and even more recently I sort of detected a hint of cynicism when you talked about “big yoga.”

So these are the types of things that someone who practices yoga, you know, it might catch their attention. I’m interested, again, to sort of hear about how you’ve dealt with writing about those tensions. They are tensions. People will push back and if you have a sense of wanting to be careful when you write about those things. Just sort of reflect on dealing with some of the difficult elements of a historical deconstruction.

WHITE: Yeah. It’s very fraught. Perhaps not so much as some of the other topics I wrote in my earlier works on other types of yoga, but yes, from the outset writing historically about traditions of which the adherence consider them to be ahistorical, transcending time and circumstance, you’re already falling in the face of the cherished beliefs of all Hindus.

So I see myself as a cultural historian writing about the culture of religious traditions, where the human actors are center stage as opposed to the divine ones, or texts as sort of disembodied powers in the world. Of course that ruffles feathers. I’ve had reactions from Hindu fundamentalists, not as strong as some of my colleagues have, but that have been fairly strong and negative.

With respect to yoga, there is a group that many even within the yoga sub-culture refer to as the “yoga fundamentalists.” These are the people who take the teachings of their guru to be basically equivalent to word of God and therefore not to be contested. There, as well, once again, if you’re a fundamentalist you’re not going to be very open to historical relativism.

An obvious correlate would be the Constitutionalists in the United States, who feel that somehow they know what the Founding Fathers meant when they wrote the amendments to the Constitution, the second one for example. The history of the Constitution is the history of judicial review, and in every period and circumstance the teachings have to be understood in specific historical context, the present of the rendering of a new ruling by the Supreme Court in 1940 is not going to be the same as that in 2014. So too with the traditions that I study.


HODGES: But with that was it difficult though to… did you have a point when you realized like oh, the things that I have been told about this or that, upon further research they’re a lot more complicated? So did you ever have a period of disenchantment or of cognitive dissonance when you were confronting some of the new findings you were coming across? Because you said that you didn’t start the project in order to do that, but yet it happened. Did you have any period of trepidation there for yourself?

WHITE: Well that’s a strong word. I say that because it has happened to me with all the other books I’ve written, so I kind of can contextualize my feeling of being at sea by saying oh yes, I’ve been here before. Now what do I do about it? Then I set about to sort of connecting the dots in the most plausible way that I could, which meant layering discourses of different people from different countries and different times and so forth, and trying to respect every voice, even as I contextualize them, with respect to all the other voices, which is about the best one can hope to do.

So of course I’m telling a story, it’s not the story, but it’s as close as I can get to what I think probably has been the case over the centuries, if not the millennia. Yeah, I fully expect to get negative feedback from the various constituencies. The Hindu fundamentalists, the yoga fundamentalists, some post-modern scholars, and some people like the scholar from Britain that we both mentioned off camera here. So yeah, there are controversies among scholars, just as there are among religious groups. There are different constituencies that take different approaches. I tend to find my own path.


HODGES: For me it seems like one of the things you were trying to do toward the end of the book, and maybe throughout the book, was to describe the text that has been and can be read in many different ways, almost that there’s what someone called a fundamental ambiguity to text, and for some people that sort of ambiguity would weaken the authority of the text, or maybe even the value of the text. Just as the last comment here I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on when a text is ambiguous and where it has competing interpretations, whether you see that as a weakness of a text like the Yoga Sutra or perhaps more of a strength.

WHITE: Well it’s a weakness for anyone who would try to decant all of those aphorisms into a coherent set of teachings, and that’s why I have so much respect for Rajendralal Mitra, who managed to pull it off better than anyone else I would say. It’s a strength on the other hand inasmuch as when a text is big or ambiguous, or the language of the text is even difficult to recover, that allows people to sort of pour in their own interpretations and morph it into whatever use they wish to apply to it.

So I believe the second most translated work in the world after the Bible is the Tao Te Ching, which is a scripture of Taoism and like the Yoga Sutra the language of it is opaque, it’s aphoristic, it’s elliptical, it’s ancient, and there as well you read two translations of the Tao Te Ching and you wonder if they’re the same text because they’re so different. So this has allowed perhaps for the survival of the Yoga Sutras in a world in which its language is unrecoverable for all intents and purposes. The original intent. This has given it, well, it’s had three lives and perhaps it’s going to get up to nine.

HODGES: That’s David Gordon White. He’s the author of a biography of the Yoga Sutra. It’s a volume in the Princeton University Press’s really good series on the “Lives of Great Religious Books.” I recommend that series. I recommend this book as well. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today, David.

WHITE: It’s my pleasure, Blair.