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A report about using texts to sell ideas

Yoga as Opera: Patanjali Remixed

By Daniel Simpson

When practitioners of yoga study philosophy, the text we most often read first is the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. However, this collection of esoteric verses has little to say about modern yoga, mainly teaching meditation, not sequences of postures. And although it is approximately 1,600 years old, its canonical status is relatively recent. But now that Patanjali is so widely quoted, teachers find ways to make his theories sound relevant, skipping aspects that seem otherworldly, such as a chapter devoted to supernatural powers.

Most of us open the text seeking practical guidance. But what if someone were to tell you Patanjali's words were not really a text, never mind an instruction manual, because they only existed to be chanted by priests, whose recitals were the sole authentic form of practice?  

This is what happened on a recent course with the French Indologist Michel Angot. Billed as "an experience of sutra through sound," its stated aim was to: "Read the Yoga Sutra using only the tools available at the time [and] to enter the yogic mind as far as possible." With more than 40 hours of seminars over two weeks, it was the academic highlight of a yoga studies summer school. It seemed like an immersion in classical practice with an expert, so I eagerly signed up and got more than I bargained for.

Angot is a veteran scholar and linguist, not a practitioner of postural yoga. His yogic insights stem from his studies with Brahmin priests, the highest Indian caste, and traditionally the guardians of sacred teachings. The precision of their chanted Sanskrit ensured that the Vedas, India's oldest surviving texts, were preserved and shared for more than 2,000 years before being written. Having been trained by South Indian Brahmins in grammatical analysis and recitation, Angot peppers his lectures with full-throated bursts of Vedic baritone.

Michel Angot (photo by Matylda Ciołkosz)

Michel Angot (photo by Matylda Ciołkosz)

"I am a representative of Brahminic knowledge," he booms at the start to establish credentials and priorities. "I am interested only in the pandits who work with the text as a living oral document." Evoking the hierarchical world in which he learned, including surrender to the teacher, he adds: "You will listen, and you will learn how they were thinking. What you think, it's not my problem." 

Each day includes a 90-minute discourse on fine points of grammar, presenting his theories about hidden meanings. His analysis of Patanjali's first words (atha yoganushasanam) takes up half the first week. Intellectual discussions are meant to be followed by chanting the text, but Angot keeps talking for most of the time, reflecting his assessment of Brahmin priorities: "They are there for the sake of what they call knowledge and that knowledge must be said."

But what does any of this have to do with Patanjali or his teachings? Because the Yoga Sutra was composed in Sanskrit, Angot argues, its contents were never intended for ordinary ears. Sanskrit, whose name in Sanskrit means "refined", was a specialist language of elites, "a way of exchanging knowledge among those who know," he says. "Never were they using the sutra for the sake of intellectual understanding. Always for the purpose of recitation." 

Although texts were often shared in this way, it seems at odds with yoga history. Back in the Iron Age, Brahmins conducted rituals for communal prosperity. However, priestly authority was cast into doubt by the doctrine of karma, which emerged from an unknown source more than 2,500 years ago. It taught that anyone who lived would be reborn, because each of their actions fuelled karmic results that spanned infinite lifetimes. With no apparent way out of the cycle of births, the ultimate challenge was to set oneself free using spiritual wisdom. Vedic rituals provided no answers, so the earliest yogis came up with new methods. They renounced worldly life and did as little as possible, striving to end the production of karma.

Most of the ideas that Patanjali synthesized came from this background. There were multiple groups of renouncers, including Buddhists and Jains. What united them was their rejection of Brahmin power. To reassert their influence, Brahmins later borrowed many yogic ideas, reinventing what it meant to renounce in the Bhagavad Gita, which was probably composed before the sutras. But the techniques that Patanjali teaches had non-Brahmin origins. Regardless of how the Yoga Sutra was transmitted, it codified practices used by ascetics.

Angot's thesis ignores this dimension. To summarize his argument, Patanjali was "probably a team of people", who chanted each verse or sutra into being. Their words amount to bullet-point notes on broader teachings, which are hard to decipher without the original commentary that unpacks them. In all, there are 195 sutras (196 if you count an extra line on becoming invisible), and combined they are half as long as this article. As a result, they were easy to memorize and chant, which helped keep them alive. Although probably composed in the early fifth century, it is unclear when they were first transcribed. Were it not for Brahmins reciting their contents, we might never have heard of them.

Missing Links

This hypothesis has one major drawback: an absence of evidence. To quote the historian David Gordon White: "There is no explicit record, in either the commentarial tradition itself or in the sacred or secular literatures of the past two thousand years, of adherents of the Yoga school memorizing, chanting, or claiming an oral transmission for their traditions." Angot is undeterred by such forthright statements, which reflect a bigger problem that his theories address. "There is no yoga tradition," he says with a shrug. "The tradition was more or less lost." As for precisely when, or why or how, "we don't know, and we have to accept that we don't know."

The first translators of the Yoga Sutra into English said something similar. In the mid-nineteenth century, James Ballantyne scoured Varanasi in vain for a living interpreter of the text. "No pandit in these days professes to teach this system," he wrote. A few decades later, Rajendralal Mitra was no more successful. "I had hopes of reading the work with the assistance of a professional Yogi," Mitra said, "but I was disappointed. I could find no Pandit in Bengal who had made the Yoga the special subject of his study."

Classical Indian texts are often the subject of hundreds of commentaries. Roughly a dozen appeared on the sutras before the nineteenth century, but almost all of them were written by outsiders, interpreting yoga in light of Vedanta and other philosophies. The only exception is the earliest, the Yoga Bhashya of Vyasa, whose name means "compiler". Most scholars now think that text and the Yoga Sutra had the same author. According to the leading researcher on this topic, Philipp Maas: "A single person called Patanjali collected some sutras, probably from different, now lost sources, composed most of the sutras himself and provided the whole set with his own explanations in a work with the title 'Patanjala Yogashastra'."

As Maas explains: "In the early classical period of Indian philosophy the terms sutra and bhashya did not designate different literary genres but compositional elements of scholarly works (shastra)." Therefore, sutras should always be read with their accompanying commentary, along with later interpretations by experts in the shastra. This is difficult to do with Patanjali's yoga. Nothing written about it since can be said to comprise a coherent tradition in the same way as other Indian systems with unbroken commentarial lineages.

This results in a problem, well summed up by Edwin Bryant, who has translated Patanjali. "The Yoga Sutra is classified as a darshana, [a] classical school of philosophical thought," Bryant notes, "so a commentary that claims to represent the Yoga tradition cannot be presented outside this context." However, if so few of the "traditional" commentators were yogis, did any of them say anything authentic, and if not how can we? 

For now, Maas laments, "the public interest in yoga is, at least in part, channelled and satisfied by amateurs and self-designated representatives of 'the yoga tradition,' who propagate religious and partly right-wing Hindu fundamentalist ideas disguised as knowledge." To address this, Maas has been working on textual history. He has compiled a critical edition of the first chapter of sutras and their bhashya, based on two dozen manuscripts, ironing out copying errors and other variations. 

Michel Angot in class

Michel Angot in class

Angot likens this project to collecting butterflies in a display case. A living tradition is artificially captured and pinned down. Few texts have definitive forms. Many versions go missing. With the Yoga Sutra, most available manuscripts date from the last 300 years, so more than a millennium remains unaccounted for. Angot is dismissive of Maas's efforts, saying: "I'm not at ease with how Western scholars use Sanskrit texts without knowing the tools of their Sanskrit inventors," by which he means chanting. 

His attempt to make sense of the gaps draws on Brahmin culture, whose traditions are uninterrupted. "What I want to know," Angot says, "is how those who invented yoga were thinking [about] the text in that time, not in our time." Strictness of training makes their rituals seem timeless. Young Brahmins learn the Vedas "by heart, without understanding," he says. "They know freedom in the form of following rules." They also recite Panini's text on grammar, the Ashtadhyayi, plus sutras on Nyaya, a philosophy of reasoning. Whatever the subject, Angot stresses, the important thing is accurate chanting. "They don't speak philosophy," he says. "They speak grammar, in order to express themselves philosophically." 

They later learn the meaning of texts with help from commentaries. Although some were written down, most had "an esoteric part transmitted only orally," Angot adds. For students, this implied: "Singing. Always singing. Not reading. Never." Their grasp of grammar, and the commentator's skill, made concepts clear. This is no easy task. As Wendy Doniger has joked: "Every Sanskrit word means itself, its opposite, a name of God, and a position in sexual intercourse." Many, including yoga, have dozens of possible definitions. Making sense of a text depends on context. For example, the commentary on the first of Patanjali's sutras spells out what it teaches: the yoga of meditative absorption (yogah samadhih).  

Other meanings are hard to divine without a teacher's guidance, Angot warns. "Imagining that with the Monier-Williams dictionary and the grammar of Whitney that you can understand Sanskrit, it's a joke," he scoffs, citing two key products of nineteenth-century colonial scholarship. "To know Sanskrit, you have to study for 20 years, every day," while being mindful of Angot's maxim: "Sanskrit was composed in order to be recited." 


To drive this home, he has invented a way of reciting Patanjali, adapted from Brahmin chanting of the Nyaya Sutra. "I am sure that the text was recited, but nobody knows how," he says. Even so, he is "90 percent" convinced about his version, based on his faith in the Brahmins he trained with. Their specialty is niche (the Taittiriya rituals of the Krishna Yajurveda, a sub-branch of a sub-branch of one of the four main Vedic traditions), but renowned for accuracy, Angot says; when they heard him recite the Yoga Sutra, "the pandits did not disagree."

Unlike his Wagnerian Vedic chants, which reverberate out like a human kettledrum, Angot's tone for reciting the sutras is funereal. He explains this by contrasting contents. "The Veda is saying yes to the world. Yoga is saying no to the world," he says. "You are singing your own extinction." As translated by Angot, Patanjali's second sutra (yogash cittavrittinirodhah) says: "Yoga is the state of zero activity of the mind." And since chanting can bring this about, he infers it is yoga. "We will prove it," he says. "Mind not engaged." He ducks questions about whether the text teaches other forms of practice. "Wait! Wait!" he insists. "After hours of recitation we will speak about it. It takes time, like a good wine."

Pressing him for details gets confusing. When Angot asserts that the fifteenth century Hathapradipika was also written to be chanted, I ask if he accepts that there were yogis putting its teachings into practice. "Are you sure that they were?" he replies. The evolution of physical yoga would be hard to explain by other means. He wobbles his head in the Indian way, and smilingly says: "I am playing my role." This might be more persuasive sitting with Brahmins around a fire, but we are in a classroom and he is projecting slides from a Macbook Air.

To help us understand words (despite telling us that Brahmins learn without doing so), he teaches hand gestures. The first sutra starts with palms pressed together as in prayer, saluting the auspiciousness of atha, which means "now". This is followed by lifting both hands above our heads, then lowering them onto our laps with open palms. Angot says this demystifies anushasanam, showing that yoga descends from tradition to be received, though he claims that the Sanskrit means something different. Contradictions aside, I find these actions put me off. They remind me of play-school. Other students love them. At least half of the group was initially resistant to Angot's statements, yet he slowly wins them over the more we recite.

A session of chanting with Michel Angot

A session of chanting with Michel Angot

A few days into the course, he announces an extra lunch-time class of Vedic chanting. "It is not compulsory," he says, but it might lift our spirits. "The Yoga Sutra will pull you in the direction of yoga," he warns. "It is dangerous! Saying no to life. I have seen people completely taken by the Yoga Sutra. Nothing was important except recitation." For practice at home, he says, ten minutes are sufficient. "You are not a monk," he laughs. "If you feel you are not completely alright, you diminish - five minutes, four, three - just five sutras it is enough."

Chanting is certainly powerful. A passage in the Mahabharata, known as the Japakopakhyana, says it leads to absorption in samadhi. Angot suggests his method does too. "Yoga Sutra is very effective to sterilize the mind," he says. "There is something else which has nothing to do with the mind." However, as Bryant's translation notes, the higher realms of yoga leave all objects behind, including chants, so awareness perceives its own nature. "Since the ultimate truth of the soul, attained in asamprajnata-samadhi, is by definition beyond the intellect, and thus beyond words and concepts," Bryant writes, "the primary purpose of [Patanjali's] text is, as far as possible, to point the reader toward the actual practice of yoga."

Angot's book about the Yoga Sutra does acknowledge this, calling it a treatise on contemplation. Even if yogis never used it as a manual, it takes the form of one, and the only chant it teaches is Om. Perhaps it was a Brahmin attempt to explain asceticism, gaining its status as the main text on yoga in the fourteenth century Sarvadarshanasamgraha, or "Compendium of All Philosophies". But suggesting its aim is recitation, and defining this as yoga, seems far-fetched. If the sutras have no meaning to the reciter, and what matters is rhythm and pitch, then why not chant random text with the same intonation? If on the other hand Sanskrit words are imbued with power, how can we be sure an invented method is transmitting it?

Ultimately, Angot's goal is to make people think about oral transmission, and why texts are imperfect guides to yogic knowledge. However, by appointing himself as the arbiter of what is authentic, he makes the sutras more about him than what they say. He might even argue that this is unavoidable, because of the insights he gleaned from his training, and the need for the text to be interpreted authoritatively. "What is important is always hidden," he remarks at one point. "That is Sanskrit." 

In many ways, Angot is the heir to another tradition, in which charismatic teachers capitalise on interest in Patanjali to promote other ideas. By adapting a Brahmin method of chanting to talk about a text that no Brahmins recite, he is following a path first trodden by Swami Vivekananda in the nineteenth century, who selectively borrowed from the Yoga Sutra to present a modernized version of Hinduism to Westerners.

Angot inspires me to study more deeply, with the result that I question his methods. I eventually leave the course a few days early. Later, I find some mp3s with a different technique for reciting sutras. The format is call-and-response, led by a Brahmin called S.T. Nagaraj. They remind me of why I enrolled on Angot's course, so I decide to try chanting them instead.

Further Reading