The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali by Hartranft

Chip Hartranft. The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali: A New Translation with Commentary. Boston, Mass.: Shambhala, 2003. Paperback, xviii + 149 pages.

Over the years, the Yoga- Sūtrahas been translated numerous times. Often these renderings are little more than paraphrases by writers who do not know Sanskrit. Hartranft, who is the founder director of the Arlington Center in Arlington, Massachusetts, appears to have studied Sanskrit and to be aware of the scholarly literature on this text.

I must admit that when I picked up this nicely produced Shambhala book, I did so with my usual reticence when it comes to renderings of Patanjali’s work. I have simply seen too many nonsensical treatments masquerading as “translations” of this complex text to let my guard down easily.

However, I was happy to discover that Hartranft—although very much taking his own interpretative route—is a thoughtful translator. All translations are interpretations to one degree or another. As he points out, the two major approaches to translating a Sanskrit text like the Yoga- Sūtraare (1) to provide as much as possible a verbatim rendition, which often does not read very well in English and requires some philosophical understanding or (2) to make the translation true to the original intent but user friendly. He opted for the second approach, and considering the inherent limitations of this particular tactic he did a laudable job.

As someone who believes in a more literalist approach I am naturally critical of some of his choices in rendering difficult philosophical Sanskrit terms in English, but at the same time I think he succeeded in capturing the essential teachings of Patanjali correctly and in a far more accessible manner than a literalist rendering would allow. Also his commentary on the sūtras, which he rightly groups together into meaningful units, is excellent.

One of his more felicitous renderings is “patterning of consciousness” for the Sanskrit citta-vritti. This really captures well the fact that our mind is made up of so many habit “grooves” that have us go round and round in circles (which is the essential meaning of the term samsāra, or “world”). Hartranft’s interpretative conceptualizations and vocabulary are obviously informed by his study and practice of Buddhism, which he has sought to integrate with the Hindu yogic teachings—a commendable effort.

I was especially curious to learn how he had tackled the concept of dharma- megha-samādhi, which is a tricky concept in Patanjali’s system. He found an elegant way of expressing this phrase in English, again clearly under the influence of Buddhism: “The cloud of irreducible experiential forms.” He understands dharma in the Buddhist sense as “the fleeting granular forms that combine to produce what seems like the smallest physical constituents . . . the briefest constituent phenomenon of consciousness that awareness can observe directly.” I favored a similar Mahāyāna interpretation in my own translation, because very clearly Patanjali’s work shows the influence of this branch of Buddhism, but I chose to leave the term untranslated. Hartranft was bolder than I and actually translated the concept in Buddhist terms, which do not violate Patanjali’s system of thought.

He often finds very plausible and simple illustrations for otherwise complicated technical points and covers in his commentary all the salient points one would want to see discussed in a treatment of Patanjali’s darshana. I can heartily recommend this book.

Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
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