Maharishi Patanjali – The ancient thinker of a living tradition

Maharishi Patanjali is looked upon as the incarnation of Adisesha, the cosmic serpent upon whom Lord Vishnu reclines.
Keywords: Patanjali, Lord Vishnu, Adisesha, Yoga, Incarnation, Impurity, Incredible, Humanity
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Maharishi Patanjali

योगेन चित्तस्य पदेन वाचां । Yogena cittasya padena vacam

मलं शरीरस्य च वैद्यकेन ॥ Malam sarirasya ca vaidyakena

योऽपाकरोत्तमं प्रवरं मुनीनां । Yopakarottam pravaram muninam

पतञ्जलिं प्राञ्जलिरानतोऽस्मि ॥ Patanjalim pranjaliranato’smi

I offer my salutations with folded hands to Maharishi Patanjali, reputed among the sages, who removed :-

Impurity of mind through Yoga

Impurity of speech through Grammar

Impurity of body through medicine/Ayurveda

Puranic  Story of  Maharishi Patanjali

Maharishi Patanjali is looked upon as the incarnation of Adisesha, the cosmic serpent upon whom Lord Vishnu reclines. The sage’s life is dated between 2nd and 4th century CE by most scholars.

Lord Vishnu Reclining on Adisesha

Maharishi Patanjali is seen accompanying the cosmic dance of Lord Nataraja at Chidambaram where he served as the Lord’s attendant

Legend reveals that he fell into the palms of a pious, wise lady Gaunika who was praying to the Sun deity for a child, as a  little snake which turned into a human form.

So Adisesha came down to earth as Patanjali to teach the science of Yoga for physical, emotional, socia, and spiritual wellness of the human community.

Patanjali put 3 conditions for imparting his vast knowledge

  1. He would not teach to less than 1000 students
  2. None of the disciples must be distracted or get up while learning
  3. He would teach only from behind a curtain that should not be lifted by anyone

So a thousand students assembled to the South of Vindhya Mountains. As Patanjali was teaching, each student was amazed they were taught personally and became engrossed in absorbing the knowledge.

Suddenly a young boy had a strong urge for nature’s call and left the class quietly hoping to return unnoticed.  Soon after  others became restless and  when another student  who got tempted out of curiosity lifted the curtain, all 999 disciples were reduced to ashes!The rules for learning were violated.

Patanjali became sad that all efforts to impart knowledge were wasted.

The young boy returned and begged for forgiveness. Patanjali felt compassionate and  transmitted  all knowledge to him. Since he had not abided by the condition of  not getting up during the discourse, Patanjali had to turn him into a BrahmaRakshas  – a ghost who has accumulated a lot of knowledge! He would be stuck to a tree but if he found a worthy student to whom he could pass on his learnings, the BrahmaRakshas would be released from the curse and liberated.

Unfortunately, the BrahmaRakshas could not find a qualified student for many years.

It is  said that Patanjali himself came as his student centuries later, and using his nail as a pen, blood as the ink, and dry leaves as paper, wrote down the teachings to preserve the knowledge.

It is this disciple who later became Sri Govindapada, the Guru of Shri Adi Shankaracharya!

Incredible contribution of Maharishi Patanjali to humanity

Patanjali wrote three powerful scriptures to share an ocean of wisdom with mankind.

  1. Patanjali Tantra

A  primordial source on Ayurveda about wellness, health and medicine for ailments.

2.  Maha Bhashyam

An elaborate commentary on ‘Ashtadhyayi” ( 8 chapters) – a treatise on every aspect of Samskritam grammar written in the 6th to 5th century BCE  by the greatest grammarian Panini, about which linguists & litterateurs  marvel the world over, even till today!

3. Yoga Sutras

Compilation and systematisation of innumerable yoga practices that became the foundational text of Yoga  practiced for eons.

Patanjali Yoga Sutras

The Patanjali Yoga Sutra is the oldest known text on the subject of Yoga and is the most renowned among his contributions The text establishes the practice and philosophy of yoga in short pithy and succinct statements known as aphorisms. Sutras are like precise formulae – unambiguous, highly meaningful, applicable, irrefutable and cannot be understood without a commentary . There are 196 aphorisms, divided into 4 chapters.

“Yoga has many meanings – relations, means, union, knowledge, matter, logic and so on….the meaning of Yoga is upaya, which means path or way which we follow or by means of which we can attain something.What then is the path we should follow?What or whom should we seek to attain?The mind should seek to attain what is best…mind seeks the Universal Self….Thus, the way of establishing the mind in the Self should be known as Yoga.” –   Yoga Mala authored by renowned Astanga Yoga Master Shri.K.Pattabhi Jois

Patanjali begins his Yoga Sutra with


अथ योगानुशासनम्

Atha yoga-anushasanam        

(Now I begin to describe the Yoga Shastra, the Science of Yoga)




“ Yoga is the mastery over the modifications of the mind”

On one hand the mind settles down to be calm, quiet, silent and peaceful; on the other hand mind is able to become sharp & brilliant.

With this introduction and definition of Yoga , Patanjali launches into some of the  greatest Sutras in the literature of Yoga.

Ashtanga yoga of Maharishi Patanjali

Patanjali gives an 8 step approach called the Ashtanga ( 8 limbs)Yoga as a set of guidelines to reach the highest state of Yoga.

Swami Vivekananda’s famous and highly influential book “ Raja Yoga”, published in 1896 and adapted for the western audience, was based on the principles of Ashtanga Yoga! Raja Yoga was meant to channel one’s will power to raise one self.

Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama and Pratyahara are classified under  Bahiranga Yoga – the external aspect.

Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi are classified under Antaranga Yoga – the internal aspect.

Several other  great Rishis have given primordial texts for Yoga like

Bhagavan Sri Krishna – The Bhagavad Gita

Maharishi Yagnyavalkya – Yoga Yagnyavalkyam

 Maharishi Vasishta – Yoga Vasishtam

Yoga has been an integral part of Indian Civilization for thousands of years. There are many scriptures  on Yoga, each of these texts describe different kinds of Yoga like Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga , Jnana Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga as various paths in the journey of the Yogi. In this ocean of wisdom, Asanas ( Yogicpostures) & Pranayama ( breath regulation & control) are more widely known and practiced than others.

The entire process of Yoga is actually a journey of antahkaranasuddhi  ( purification of mind-body-sense complex) in order to  recognise and understand that the answer to the question “Who am I ‘, lies in the secret knowledge तत् त्वम् असि Tat Tvam Asi  (That Thou Art)!

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Pavithra Srinivasan

Pavithra Srinivasan is a Visiting Fellow of India Foundation. She is an acclaimed Bharatnatyam dancer, and founder of Arsha Kala Bharathi.

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