Review: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Edwin Bryant

yoga-sutras-bryant-1By Bhrigupada dasa

Edwin F. Bryant, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. New York: North Point Press, 2009.

Publishing yet another English edition of Patañjali’s classic text on yoga is no easy task. Hundreds of translations are available already, representing all kinds of perspectives and written by weighty authorities, both within different schools of yoga and academia. Furthermore, many of these editions are available for free on the Internet (example). Is there then any room for Edwin Bryant’s newest addition? I will argue that there is, and further, that Bryant’s edition is among the most important ones available.

Much in Bryant’s edition will be familiar to aficionados of the text. As is usual, the sutras are presented first in Devanagari script, then in the standard IAST transcription, followed by a word-for-word translation, a running translation, and a commentary. Similarly, many technical terms are left untranslated, such as dhyana, klesa, and samskara. Neither is there anything very particular about the translation: Bryant adds verbs (is, becomes, etc) when needed to smooth out the abrupt nature of the sutra style, and occasionally adds clarificatory words in brackets [like this]. All of this means that, except from being thicker than most other editions (598 pages), Bryant’s looks just like any other.

Content-wise, we have a completely different situation. Where most other editions content themselves with looking at the sutras through the lens of a smattering of Advaita Vedanta or the vague teachings of some popular yoga teacher, Bryant’s goes to the sources. Unknown to many modern readers, Patañjali’s text has a long tradition of Indian textual commentary. Bryant’s commentary quotes heavily from these commentaries, in particular Vyasa, Vacaspati Mishra, and Vijñabhikshu, who seems to be something of a favorite. It is not that these commentaries have not been available in English before, but the translations that are available (e.g. Woods 1914) are generally too academic to be of much use for a non-specialist. Bryant’s paraphrases, on the other hand, are clear and to the point, without dumbing down the text. Readers familiar with only run-of-the-mill modern editions will find plenty of hard-core philosophy to delve into here.

The above would already qualify Bryant’s edition as extremely valuable. Its value is further enhanced by Bryant’s own observations and discussions on topics such as Ishvara, the agency of purusha, and the position of the siddhis. Readers with a background in bhakti will be delighted to find that Bryant quite correctly highlights the devotional side of the Yoga Sutras (after all, Patañjali does refer to ishvara-pranidhana on three different occasions). He mentions Srila Prabhupada and the maha-mantra twice. A Vaishnava devotee wishing to introduce modern yogis to a more theistic understanding of yoga can hardly find a more useful book. There have been attempts by devotees to hijack the popularity of the Yoga Sutras, but this is something completely different. Bryant’s work is one of thorough scholarship, not an attempt to crudely superimpose another ideology on this ancient text.

All of this does not mean that I like everything in Bryant’s edition. He prefaces his text with a foreword by B.K.S. Iyengar, which—with all due respect to this giant of a teacher—will do nothing but confuse the reader (“perfection in asana means a divine union of prakriti and purusha”…). Like in the case of many American writers, Bryant’s prose tends to become somewhat wordy. He also unnecessarily repeats himself (as when writing about mantras in 1.27 and 2.44). There are also some sloppy references (on p. 458 Bryant refers to sutra 1.10 instead of the correct 2.10). There is also something wrong with the font used for the diacritics and for such a voluminous book to lack an index is unfortunate. However, these are all details that can be easily corrected in the next edition. To state it simply: for most readers, this is the only edition of the Yoga Sutras that they will ever need.

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11 Responses to Review: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Edwin Bryant

  1. Sounds like a good book for anyone interested in Patanjali’s Raja-Yoga. The book however has never been included in the Gaudiya Vaishnava canon by any of the Goswamis or Acharyas of the tradition.
    The Gaudiya Vaishnavas study Sankhya as it is explained by Kapila Muni in Srimad Bhagavatam, not in the school of Patanjali.

    So, the relevance of the book to the theme of this web site is somewhat in question if we consider that this web site is meant for the express purpose of promoting exclusive Hari-bhakti.

    In the line of pure devotion coming down from the Goswamis of Vrindavan, there is most certainly no plan or program for the study and practice of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga.
    For the Gaudiya Vaishnava, the yoga system consists of the nine limbs of Hari Bhakti, not the eight limbs of Raja-Yoga.

    As far as the global Gaudiya community is concerned, I don’t see how the book has any particular relevance.

    • I agree completely agree that Patanjali’s Yoga-sutras are not about Guadiya Vaisnavism. However, it has become popular in the greater spiritual circle that Gaudiya Vaisnavas find themselves here in the West. Then again, the Yoga-sutras teach astanga yoga, and this same subject is taught in the sixth chapter of Bhagavad-gita. And it is also possible to explain astanga yoga as a path when mixed with bhakti that leads to santa rasa as opposed to Paramatma sayujya. Patabhi Jois, one of the most well known yoga instructors who based their teaching on the Yoga sutras, identified his sadhya as attaining Vaikuntha.

      It may also be helpful to read the “About Us” section in the menu of the Harmonist to better understand how this review fits into the Harmonist’s editorial policy.

      • Regarding Pattabhi Jois, as far as I know his family lineage was that of Sankaracarya and his puja was to Siva. Publicly he always spoke according to advaita-interpretation. His prominent students are of the opinion, that he was an advaitin.

        It would be interesting to hear where he has mentioned about Vaikuntha.

    • Gaura-Vijaya dasa

      One more thing to consider is that whenever saints establish a new system of philosophy they do so by distinguishing their philosophy from existing philosophies. Sometimes they have to strongly criticize other systems of thoughts. But that is just a stage in the development of a system.
      In the accomodating spirit of B.G where different systems of thoughts are addressed, GV should seek to interface with other traditions in an open-minded discussion spirit. Even Sukadeva Goswami is addressing a wide audience and to do so speaks about different systems of thought, while keeping bhakti in focus.

      Comparing eight limbs of astanga yoga to nine processes of bhakti is not correct. Eight limbs correspond to progressive stages in yoga and nine limbs are separate ways of sadhana. Ramanuja in his Gita commentary has delineated how person practicing bhakti also passes through stages similar to eight-fold stages of astanga yoga. Swami Tripurari following the insights of previous acaryas drawn devotional conclusions from the verses of sixth chapter that corresponds to astanga yoga.
      In today’s pluralistic world, I don’t think it is a good idea to project GV as an insular spiritual sect composed of self-righteous people.

  2. I think bhakti-yoga has a lot more in common with Patanjali’s yoga-sutras than with Bible.
    If devotees want to expand their preaching into the yoga community they better be familiar with this very important text.

    • Well, that is certainly an astute observation.
      The Bible is not about yoga.
      It is about ancient Hebrew superstition.
      Originally, however, there were ascetic limbs of the Hebrew cult that did practice asceticism, austerity and mysticism, but that was all lost in the Pauline sect where Christ did all the work and simple faith in Christ was the ticket to paradise.
      Wouldn’t it be nice if actual salvation was that simple?

      Yes, I confess, I do not buy into the official religion of the debauched Roman empire that the Caucasians of Europe adopted as their official system of salvation.

  3. In the light of discussion, it is important to note how Srila Rupa Goswami Prabhupada used the verses from Hatha Yoga Pradipika as the second and third verses of his Upadesamrita.
    Hatha Yoga Pradipika 1.15
    atyāhāraḥ prayāsaś ca
    prajalpo niyama-grahaḥ |
    jana-saṅgaś ca laulyaṁ ca
    ṣaḍbhir yogo vinaśyati

    utsāhāt sāhasād dhairyāt
    tattva-jñānāc ca niścayāt |
    ṣaḍbhir yogaḥ prasidhyati

    Author of Hatha Yoga Pradipika wrote his book before Srila Rupa Goswami wrote Upadesamrita.
    As we read in the Sad-goswami astaka: nana-sastra-vicaranaika-nipunau sad dharma-samsthapakau
    Goswamis were very expert in scrutinizingly studying all the revealed scriptures with the aim of establishing eternal religious principles for the benefit of all human beings.
    My cudo to Adwaita das Prabhu for his excellent books.

  4. Keliparayan das

    Interesting discussion…

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