The Roadmap to Samkhya and Raja Yoga

© Copyright 2003-2006 All Rights Reserved

By Ronald Girty


Academic Mystery…

Cruise any metaphysical bookstore and you will see numerous translations of the Yoga Sutras by numerous authors and numerous Yoga traditions, and some will openly admit that the Yoga Sutras are not really an instruction book on Yoga. For instance, we have the statement of Georg Feuerstein, “Even though the Yoga-Sutra is not a manual containing concrete instruction about the actual practice of Yoga, nonetheless the attentive reader is bound to find a wealth of hints and ideas which will enrich his practice greatly.”([1])

We have no evidence, only conjecture, that a tradition of the Hatha Yoga gymnastic stretches –to which G. Feuerstein may be referring– existed at the time the Yoga Sutras were compiled more than two thousand years ago. This would of course explain why the Yoga Sutras is not an instruction manual for any Hatha Yoga traditions, simply because there were no Hatha Yoga traditions in existence yet. Instead, the Yoga Sutras and the word “yoga” refer to a specific meditation method as practiced by the now extinct Samkhya lineage which disappeared some time during the Middle Ages.

Not until the 12th through the 14th century do we have texts in the form of the Yoga Upanishads, Yoga-Yajnavalkya and the Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika is there anything even remotely resembling modern Hatha Yoga traditions. The text is fairly clear that these writings and subsequent exercises were meant to enhance the Samkhya Meditation experience, not substitute, but when the Hatha Yoga tradition is born a few centuries later, this distinction seems to have been overlooked. This erroneous substitution will turn out to be critical when future scholars attempted to translate the Yoga Sutras with the misguided belief that the breathing and stretching exercises of those writings are synonymous with the meditation or yoga of the Yoga Sutras. It should therefore not surprise us, when they are unable to find the anticipated instruction set.

On the other end of the spectrum, oral tradition maintains that Raja Yoga is associated exclusively with meditation as depicted in the Yoga Sutras and it is just as possible that G. Feuerstein’s above disclaimer refers to this as well, especially as Raja Yoga was plagued by many of the same problems as faced Hatha Yoga and for many of the same reasons, as will be discussed shortly. For now, it is sufficient to state that although the Raja Yoga tradition is based on the same text as its Samkhya predecessor, the rendition that is utilized is edited to be in accordance with mainstream religious traditions not especially prone to exactitudes, or at least not those of an academic nature. They assert that the Yoga Sutras do not embody detailed instructions for a unique meditation technique, but instead claim that the Yoga Sutras are a loose collection of comments referring to a multiplicity of religious praxes, praxes that understandably play a vital role in their religious beliefs.

As plausible as this premise of multiplicity might initially seem however, it does not appear sufficient to satisfy the exacting parameters put forth in the text itself. While it is true that some portions of the Yoga Sutras are indeed applicable in countless situations and easily adaptable to any number of spiritual and religious settings, other portions were extremely rigid and written akin to a legally enforceable contract, although the term ‘patent’ would probably be the more appropriate term considering today’s technical environment. As a direct consequence –and in all likelihood a consequence intended by the original authors– these particular passages do not lend themselves well to deviation even in the minutest. To be sure, these particular passages have proven to be an enigma to religious scholars no matter how diligent their endeavors to translate the sutras such that they support any of those above religious praxes.

These difficulties are established at the secular academic level by a seemingly unshakable reliance on the numerous commentaries on those sutras, commentaries which are far more pliant and friendly than the sutras themselves are. This academically unnatural, but nonetheless unquestioning trust in the commentaries has become so entrenched that if there is disagreement between a prima fascia understanding of a sutra and its commentary that the commentary takes president over the sutra. This is so much so that a popular myth has arisen claiming that the sutras cannot be even understood prima fascia, but we must instead look to the commentaries for an even elementary understanding. Subsequently, these commentaries instead of supplementing our understanding of the sutras now effectively substitute for that understanding.

If we think for a moment however, we can see an inbred (and hopefully obvious) problem with that approach. If we have a passage taken from any randomly chosen text that has commentary surrounding said passage, then we can only understand the commentary within the context of the primary passage. Applying this principle to the text in question, we cannot understand the commentaries on the Yoga Sutras unless we garnish a prima fascia understanding of the Yoga Sutras first, since without that prima fascia understanding we would have no way of even knowing what kind of relationship there is between the commentary and its primary. We have been blindly assuming each commentary to be an explanation of its primary sutra, while it may in fact be a polemic, and I have seen this to be the case on more than one occasion.

Fit for a King…

The first eleven sutras of the Yoga Sutras specify in great detail what is meant by the term “yoga” or “meditation.” I would like to point out that those initial sutras openly and unambiguously exploit the concepts and terminology associated with legal property as in patents or trademarks, arrest, legally allowable sustenance or means of livelihood, judge or magistrate, direct evidence or eye witness, and testimony. What's more, they lay the foundations for proper venue or sovereignty over a domain, counterfeit, non-evidence or perjury, cross-examination, negligence and lastly the keystone to any litigation, performing an act both knowingly and willingly.

Those same 11 sutras use 39 individual words. Of those 39 words, 10 are official legal terms from the Laws of Manu, 20 are utilized to either delineate those legal terms or the aforementioned judicial concepts, 5 of the words are articles such as “after,” “otherwise,” etc., leaving only 4 words unaccounted for. Of those 4 words, one is the word “yoga” itself, but even there the definition of “yoga” employs legal language and principle. To argue that the authors of this segment of the text were intimately familiar with the legal system appears more than justified and more than ever warrant the modern use of the term "Raja Yoga," meaning of course "Yoga of Kings."

With that in mind, a special problem occurs with regard to vocabulary. Robert Goldman writes, “The lexicon of Sanskrit is extremely large … [and] the problem is made more complex by the fact that each different type of text has … its own specialized vocabulary.”([2]) This should not be too difficult to understand, since we have the same property in virtually all languages. The medical profession has its own vocabulary. The computer field has its own vocabulary. Once we realize that a source was written by a judicial tradition, we are then justified to show precedence to vocabulary from Manu-Smriti (Laws of Manu), nevertheless this seems not to have happened. Given that randomness alone should have dictated at least a small fraction of legal terms find their way into translation, coupled with what appears to be the total absence of said legal terminology, leaves me no alternative but to conclude that the legal vocabulary has heretofore been knowingly and willing circumvented by previous translators, and done so without even a facsimile of justification being offered for the deliberate sidestepping.

That aside, let me state in the way of summary that like most legal matters the material is overly technical and verbose and more than a little dry, but on the other hand there is a clear benefit to the style in that the instructions are as certain as a geometric proof. Bear in mind we have only discussed the first eleven sutras of the first of the four chapters belonging to the Yoga Sutras. Although this style will change when we get to chapters two and three, the subject matter and style resume in chapter four. This of course, leads me to conclude that at one time chapters one and four were joined and comprised a single comprehensive text and chapters two and three likewise comprised a second complete text, and then at some point the second text was inserted into the first.

The Personal Touch…

Chapters two and three portray a teacher-student setting and are much more humanistic in their approach. Nevertheless, unlike the dry legal setting that only required a working knowledge of the language, chapters two and three require a working knowledge of life experiences in order to understand the text. Definitions of terms are not qualified in a geometric fashion as in the legal tradition, but rather each term is gleaned from a human experience shared between writer and reader, or teacher and student. For example, the force of attraction is understood as that which emanates from the experience of pleasure. Likewise, repulsion is understood as that which emanates from the experience of pain. Without firsthand knowledge of pleasure and pain the forces of attraction and repulsion would therefore have no meaning within the text.

Understanding this design scheme becomes paramount in understanding the subject matter in chapter three, which describes four very distinct stages of a spiritual metamorphosis that is unique to those practicing the meditation that was taught in chapter one, which was authored by the fore mentioned legal tradition. Without those resultant and very unique experiences the descriptions supplied in chapter three are useless at best and misleading at worse, with the latter being the more prevalent of the two.

Included within this material is a section known as “The Eight Limbs of Yoga” or Ashtanga-Yoga. The text itself is intrinsically foreign to either chapters two or three, but acts as a bridge between them with the first five limbs pasted onto the end of chapter two and the three remaining limbs opening chapter three. Along with the Eight Limbs portion are some sutras immediately fore and aft whose function is to link the insert to its host, nevertheless those bonding sutras appear to have existed and been associated with the Eight Limbs portion even before the insertion took place.

This segment is considered by many to be the core of both Samkhya and Raja Yoga, and variations of the paradigm have occurred in assorted other texts. It also appears to have existed long before the original chapters of the Yoga Sutras were written, let alone compiled. Even though the text was initially foreign to either chapters two and three, I believe it was the product of a teaching tradition and its material an enhancement consistent with the rest of chapters two and three. I am not going to comment any further on this issue, because the text is such a montage that to analyze either its literary styles or functions within a Raja Yoga framework would exhaust us all. I only mention it here in passing so that the reader does not think I have deliberately neglected its existence off hand or ignored its importance.

Sanskrit Sutra Tradition

Sanskrit is a very flexible language that allows expressions to be extremely precise, while still allowing a certain freedom that results from a wide choice of alternative understandings. Thus a single sentence might fuse together a number of very different statements, so much so that a single utterance might contain not only one precise meaning, but may in fact contain numerous and sometimes very diverse precise meanings.

The sutra tradition was a mnemonic oral tradition that took full advantage of that asset such that single sutras could contain large masses of information, while minimizing the amount of verbiage actually memorized. For that reason one should never ignore any rendition of a sutra without viable clarification, although some translators appear to have sidestepped this aspect of the sutra tradition and done so repeatedly, at least in regard to the Yoga Sutras.

Perhaps they feel justified because of the aforementioned ill-conceived and widespread assumption that the Yoga Sutras are little more than a mismatched collection of comments, sometimes consisting not even of whole sentences. With that justification, many translators may feel free to take untold liberties in order to select obscure interpretations that are more agreeable to either their individual or collective agendas, while ignoring plainly palatable translations that are not supportive to those agendas. Notwithstanding that these agendas have been both well intentioned and in many cases even spiritually beneficial to their readers, they have however proven to be red herrings to the task at hand, which is to extract the prima fascia (and therefore intrinsic) understandings contained within the sutras themselves.

I realize that I run the potential risk of being criticized for what I have just criticized other translator’s of doing, in that I have assumed the Yoga Sutras to be an instructional manual to support my own point of view even before starting, and I must confess here and now that I did just that. I approached the translation with the assumption that it was an instruction manual exclusively for the meditation method utilized by the Samkhya tradition as depicted in the accompanied web pages, and I deliberately searched out word meanings that supported that assumption. It was only afterward I realized that not only did I have a complete instruction manual before me, but I also realized that I had an instruction manual that was in accordance with the strictest and (I honestly believe) non-biased criteria and one that has been –to date– philologically justified.


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[1] [Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali, 1979, preface p. xii]


[2] [An Introduction of the Sanskrit Language, p. xiv, 1987].