Review: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Edwin Bryant
Published on August 26th, 2009 | by Harmonist staff11
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.