A Reappraisal of Patanjali’s Yoga-Sûtras by Tandon

S. N. Tandon. A Re-appraisal of Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras in the Light of the Buddha’s Teaching. Igatpuri, Maharashtra: Vipassana Research Institute, 1995 (reprinted 1998); paperback, xii +142 pp.

This is a concise and well-researched book written by the director of the Vipassana Research Institute at Igatpuri, this being one of a large number of institutes now existing worldwide to promote the form of Theravâda Buddhism taught by S.N. Goenka. Though Tandon succeeds in demonstrating that a comparison with the Buddhist Pâli scriptures can help to shed light on some important concepts of Pâtañjala Yoga, the book does suffer somewhat from the author’s eagerness to assert the superiority of the Buddha’s teachings over those presented in the Yoga- Sûtra. For this reason I hope the reader will forgive me if I use this review not only to outline Tandon’s main points but also to argue against what I consider to be erroneous claims made in the book.

Tandon mentions in his preface, without criticism, the traditional Indian view that the author of the Yoga- Sûtra is the same as the Patañjali who composed the Mahâbhâshya commentary on Pânini’s grammatical sûtras. This, Tandon suggests, would place the composition of the Yoga- Sûtra around the second century B.C., a period when Buddhist beliefs were highly prevalent in India. It is Tandon’s view that, against this historical background, it is hardly surprising that the Yoga- Sûtra exhibits “considerable influence of the Buddha’s teaching”(p. vi). He further asserts that Patañjali’s work can be better understood by examining it in relation to the Buddhist Pâli canon than by accepting the interpretations of later commentators (such as Vyâsa and Vâcaspati Mishra), who were, submits Tandon, largely ignorant of Buddhism (p. vii).

The conceptual and terminological parallels to be found in the respective teachings of the Buddha and Patañjali are both numerous and significant, and Tandon’s analysis helps to bring them into sharp focus. But the presence of such parallels does not in itself prove the direction of influence. Though most scholars agree that the Yoga- Sûtra is a post-Buddhist work, it is equally apparent that Patañjali draws heavily upon the philosophical tradition of Sânkhya, early versions of which pre-date the Buddha by hundreds of years (cf. Larson and Bhattacharya 1987, pp. 3ff.). While discerning in the Yoga- Sûtra ” some influence of the Sânkhya tenets” as well as certain “innovations made by the author himself”(p. vi), Tandon clearly holds Buddhism to be the major influence; he does not allow for the possibility that the Buddha and Patañjali were drawing upon, and modifying to a greater or lesser extent, soteriological teachings that preceded them both.

Structurally, the book is divided into five short sections, plus an annexure on the Pâli term sampajañña. The Sanskrit text of the Yoga- Sûtra is included as an appendix in devanâgarî and Roman script. There is no index, but this is not problematic for such a relatively short work.

Section 1 is titled “Matters Consistent with the Buddha’s Teaching” and includes a number of illuminating insights which, to my mind, conclusively demonstrate an extensive conformity between the two systems concerned. Among the numerous points of interest in this section is Tandon’s claim that the expression viveka-khyâti as employed by Patañjali (Yoga- Sûtra 2.26) is a virtual synonym of vipassanâ as it is used in the Buddhist Pâli scriptures, both terms denoting perception based on discrimination (p. 44). The acute discrimination for which viveka-khyâti stands is required in Pâtañjala-Yoga (see Yoga- Sûtra 2.17) to dissolve the apparent conjunction ( samyoga) between the perceiver (drashtri) and the perceivable (drishya) and to bring about “the isolation of Pure Consciousness,” which is how Tandon translates the expression drisheh kaivalyam (Yoga- Sûtra 2.25, Tandon pp. 41-42). This approach, asserts Tandon, is equivalent to the Buddha’s method of vipassanâ meditation (pp. 42-45). Tandon’s view on this matter seems to me to be of tremendous significance since it would appear to open a door to a reconciliation between, on the one hand, the so-called âtma-vâda (theory of an essential Self) of Yoga and other “Hindu” streams of thought and, on the other hand, the anâtma-vâda (theory of non-self) of Buddhism. If both traditions could agree that one’s ultimate nature consisted in pure Consciousness then the issue of whether this nature is referred to as a “Self” or as devoid of selfhood could be seen as merely terminological. Tandon, however, describes the isolation (or what I would call the absoluteness) of pure Consciousness as merely a stage on the way to some greater realization, and in succeeding sections it becomes clear that he agrees wholeheartedly with the âtma-/anâtma-vâda distinction.

Section 2 (“Matters Inconsistent with the Buddha’s Teaching”) draws attention to some differences between Pâtañjala-Yoga and Buddhism, and it is here that Tandon first takes the opportunity to assert the latter’s superiority. With regard to the aim of the two systems Tandon notes Patañjali’s definition of Yoga as citta- vritti-nirodhah (Yoga- Sûtra 1.2) and translates this as “the cessation of mental fluctuations”’ (p. 63). He then states that, “According to the Buddha, the aim of meditation is to experience the cessation of the mind itself ( cittanirodha),” and adds in a footnote that “This is also called ‘cessation of perception and sensations’ ( sañña-vedayita-nirodha),” this being “a higher stage as compared to cittavrittinirodha” (p. 63n.). This claim strikes me as being highly dubious for two reasons: first because it is far from clear what “the cessation of the mind” would entail in addition to the cessation of its fluctuations (or modifications, vritti), and, second, because “cessation of perception and sensations” seems much closer to Patañjali’s definition of Yoga as cittavrittinirodha than to Tandon’s interpretation of citta- nirodha (which he holds to be its semantic equivalent). I would contend that citta- nirodha does not denote a “higher stage” than citta-vritti-nirodha but is, along with sañña-vedayita-nirodha, merely another way of expressing the same concept. In my understanding Patañjali’s definition of Yoga in Yoga- Sûtra 1.2 can be taken to denote both the process of dissolving mental modifications (i.e. modes of perception, sensations, psycho-emotional states, etc.) into the “mind-field” (citta) and the resulting state of mental tranquillity, in which Consciousness is able to be reflected in the mind in its pure unmodified form. While the reification of Consciousness as ‘the Seer’ (drashtri) found in Yoga- Sûtra 1.3 would be unacceptable to most Buddhists, the basic notion of a pacified mind allowing one’s true nature to be revealed, or “realized,” need not be controversial.

Section 3 (“Super-normal powers”) contains an account of the treatment of the special powers known as siddhis ( Pâli, iddhividha) in Buddhism as compared with that in the Yoga- Sûtra. This treatment seems to be fairly similar, and it is noted that both the Buddha and Patañjali regarded these powers–such as “knowledge of the past and future, knowledge of previous births, knowledge of others’ minds, [etc.]” ( Tandon p. 73)–as being of only minor importance in relation to the final goal of liberation ( nirvâna, kaivalya).

Section 4 (“Goal-realization”’) compares the respective methods and goals of Yoga and Buddhism, and finds a number of close correspondences between them despite what the author considers to be crucial inadequacies on the part of Yoga. On the matters of ethics and postural instruction Tandon regards the two teachings as virtually equivalent (pp. 88-89), and he holds Patañjali’s pronouncements on prânâyâma to be “quite close to the Buddha’s teaching”’ (p. 92). This latter assessment, however, is based on a particular reading of the sûtras relating to prânâyâma which is peculiar insofar as it endeavours to eliminate any notion of voluntary breath-retention from the practice. The important term viccheda in YS 2.49, for example, is interpreted to signify not the “cutting off” or “cessation” of respiration but “the division or separation . . . of the movements of in-breathing and out-breathing” (p. 90). Tandon acknowledges that, in both Buddhist and Yoga practice, a stage may be reached at which “one experiences stoppage of respiration ( kumbhaka)” (pp. 92-93), but he emphasises that such a stoppage “is natural and automatic and not at all a forced or attempted retention of breath as prescribed in the hathayoga”(p. 93). Whereas Tandon’s view of Hatha-Yoga seems to be that it is based on a misunderstanding of Pâtañjala-Yoga and places undue importance on the manipulation of the breathing cycle (cf. his footnote on the Gheranda-Samhitâ on p. 90), I would contend that Patañjali’s instructions on prânâyâma closely resemble the Hatha-Yoga approach and clearly indicate the suspension of respiration as being the fundamental aim of prânâyâma.

In his discussion of Yoga and Buddhist meditation, Tandon notes that the founders of both systems identify several “grades” or “levels” of samâdhi and that they each draw a sharp distinction between, on the one hand, those levels of samâdhi that have epistemic content, and which thus harbour the “‘potentiality for formation of subliminal impressions ( samskâras)” (p. 99), and, on the other hand, that supreme state in which no such potentiality exists. In the terminology of the Yoga- Sûtra the former kind of samâdhi is referred to as samprajñâta- (which Tandon translates as samâdhi “with intuitive knowledge,” p. 97) or sabîja- (“seeded,” “with seed”) samâdhi, and the latter simply as anya (“the other”) or nirbîja- (“seedless”) samâdhi (cf. Yoga- Sûtra 1.17, 18, 46, 51; 3.8). Comparable terms in Buddhism are, notes Tandon, lokiya (mundane) and lokuttara (super-mundane) samâdhis, respectively. The lokuttara-samâdhi, Tandon explains, ” has Nibbâna for its object. Any other samâdhi, howsoever sublime, is merely lokiya (mundane) in nature”(p. 99).

Despite these apparent parallels Tandon maintains the superiority of the Buddha’s teachings on meditation on the grounds that Patañjali pays inadequate attention to the notion of impermanence in the sense of “the phenomenon of arising and passing away at the level of . . . sensations [ vedanâ]” (p. 105). “The most plausible reason for this,” Tandon speculates, “could be that the author of this work [i.e., the Yoga- Sûtra] did not experience the truth of impermanence himself and, bereft of such an experience, he came to hold some different notion of what ‘Truth’ implies.” More plausible, in my view, is that Tandon is overlooking key references in theYoga- Sûtra to the impermanence of all phenomena. These are found, for example, in the definition of avidyâ (“nescience”) as “the seeing of [that which is] eternal ( nitya), pure, pleasant and essential [or the Self, âtman] in [that which is] impermanent ( anitya), impure, distressing and non-essential [or not-self, anâtman)” (Yoga- Sûtra 2.5), and in Yoga- Sûtra 2.15, which states that the possessor of discernment ( vivekin) perceives phenomenal existence to be inevitably distressing or dissatisfactory ( duhkha) due to, among other factors, the presence of “continual transformation ( parinâma).” The term parinâma refers to a change from one state to another, and therefore indicates the impermanence of the original state. Tandon attaches considerable importance to the fact that Patañjali does not link notions of change such as “dissolution and evolution”( abhibhava-prâdurbhâvau, Yoga- Sûtra 3.9) with sensations ( vedanâ), but he fails to comment on Yoga- Sûtra 3.13, in which three types of transformation (roughly: formal, temporal, and qualitative) are said to apply both to physical substance ( bhûta) and to the senses ( indriya), i.e., to sensations. Tandon completes Section 4 by reiterating the claim (commented on above) that the citta- nirodha offered by Buddhism is “a step beyond”the citta-vritti-nirodha of Pâtañjala-Yoga.

Section 5 (“The Taste of the Pudding is in the Eating” (sic)) chiefly comprises a list of Theravâda Buddhists who, by following the method prescribed by the Buddha, “were able to attain the state of non-return to the worldly existence” (p. 111). The point Tandon intends to make here is that, since he has been unable to uncover any reports of yogins successfully attaining kaivalya (the goal of Pâtañjala-Yoga) by means of Patañjali’s method, this method must be inferior to that of the Buddha. The problem with this assertion is that it ignores an important historical fact concerning Pâtañjala-Yoga. This is that, although fairly reliable versions of the Yoga- Sûtra exist, there is virtually no information available pertaining to the work’s author (or compiler) or to any school or tradition that he belonged to. Nor, therefore, do we know anything about immediate disciples of the author–who is only speculatively named as Patañjali–or later members of his lineage. In the absence of such historical data a proper assessment of the success or otherwise of the Pâtañjala system cannot possibly be carried out, and therefore Tandon’s insinuation that the system is ineffective is utterly disingenuous. The fact is that the Yoga- Sûtra provides a theoretical and practical framework that can form the basis of various systems of soteriological practice. The system itself, however, has to be “fleshed out” and passed on by a qualified teacher. Over the centuries and up to the present day innumerable yogins have drawn inspiration from the Yoga- Sûtra, and many of these have claimed for themselves, or had attributed to them, success in attaining the highest goal of Yoga. It is not the ineffectiveness of the Pâtañjala teaching that prevents us from citing the names of enlightened yogins in its support, but merely the fact that, over the course of the Yoga tradition, that teaching has been interpreted and modified by practitioners, and combined with other teachings, in such ways that prevent a pristine ” Pâtañjala-Yoga system” from being identified.

Overall Tandon’s book is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in the conceptual and terminological relationship between the Yoga- Sûtra and the Pâli canon of Buddhism. Due to the lack of clear historical data on the matter I consider the author’s suggestion of a unidirectional influence (i.e. of Buddhism upon Yoga) to be rash, though his basic point that the similarities between the systems are too close and too numerous to be merely coincidental is, I think, well supported by his analysis. The ideological bias of the author is, at times, irritating, though its obviousness means that the reader can, at least, take it into account. The referencing of passages from the Yoga- Sûtra and the Pâli canon is clear and extensive throughout, thus enabling the reader to follow up points made in the main text. (Sanskrit and Pâli terms and quotations are presented in both Devanâgarî script and Roman transliteration, which is perhaps unnecessary but nevertheless useful for checking the precise terms being referred to.) I would certainly recommend the book to anyone interested in the matters concerned.


Larson, G.J., and R.S. Bhattacharya, eds. Sâmkhya: A Dualist tradition in Indian Philosophy. Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, vol. 4. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1987.

NB: In the above article the use of diacritical marks in the transliteration of Sanskrit and Pâli terms has been simplified for the purpose of electronic publication.

Mikel Burley is co-director of Plymouth Yogashâlâ in Devon, UK, and is the author of Hatha-Yoga: Its Context, Theory and Practice ( Motilal Banarsidass, 2000). He can be contacted at: 9 Garfield Terrace, Stoke, Plymouth, PL1 5NU, UK. E-mail: m_burley99@yahoo.com

Originally reviewed © Copyright 2001. All rights reserved

Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in any form requires prior permission from Traditional Yoga Studies.

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