Who is Sage Patanjali?
Rishi Patanjali is a great saint who is believed to have lived during 2nd century BCE, roughly 2500 years ago. He is known as the father of modern Yoga. He was a great saint, scientist, musician, dancer, doctor, mathematician, language expert.
Though yoga was existed and being practiced before Patanjali’s time, he collated and documented which was until then passed on through oral tradition from master to pupil. It is said that there is nothing more anybody can write about yoga than Maharshi Patanjali. Most of the ancient and modern books on yoga and meditation are written based on Patanjali’s yoga sutra. Swami Vivekananda, made it more popular when he published his book on raja yoga in 1896, based on yoga sutras.
There is a lot of debate on the life and the works of sage Patanjali. He was accredited with many ancient scriptures related to yoga, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, dance, and language. The general argument of the modern scholars is that it is impossible for one human being to master over so many subjects. Therefore, they say there must be two or more “Patanjalis” who have worked on these subjects. However, many spiritual masters say that it is the work of one man. Such is the greatness of Patanjali. It is said that he is a saint who removed the impurities of the mind through Yoga, impurities of the speech through Mahabhasya and impurities of the body through medicine.
As per a popular legend, It is believed that Patanjali is the incarnation of serpent Adishesha, on whom Lord Vishnu reclines.
- It is believed that he is the compiler of Yoga sutras (the science of yoga). Sutra means formula. It is made up of 196 sutras (aphorisms) or words of wisdom. It is the most important and the foundation of classical yoga. He did not invent yoga, but rather compiled and documented different forms of yoga what had until then been scattered into various forms. He created a system and made everything simple to understand.
The objective of yoga sutras is to liberate oneself with the cycle of birth and death and get united with God consciousness. Maharshi Patanjali prescribed Ashtanga yoga or eight-step discipline to yoga. They are:
- Yama – restraining harmful thoughts
- Niyama – Cultivating good habits
- Asana – Learning postures
- Pranayama – Techniques of rhythmic breathing
- Pratyahara – Withdrawing senses from the object of enjoyment
- Dharana – Fixing the mind
- Dhyana – Uninterrupted contemplation
- Samadhi – Total absorption of mind. During samadhi, we experience God.
- He is the author of Mahabhasya (an ancient treatise on grammar and linguistics), which is an exposition of ‘Ashtadhyayi’ of Panini. It is a magnificent piece of work and It is the first grammar work written for any language. He redefines the rules of the Sanskrit grammar and made it precise and unambiguous.
- He is also the author of a medical text called ‘Patanjalatantra’, and ‘Charakavattika’ (commentary on Charaka Samhita). He was an authority in the field of health sciences. Many of the classical medical texts have been written based on the above works.
- Sage Patanjali is also recognized as a great dancer. The classical dancers in India revere and invoke Patanjali.
Rishi Patanjali is said to be the incarnation of serpent Adishesha, on whom Lord Vishnu reclines. Once Lord Vishnu, seated on Adishesha, was watching the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva, the tandava nritya. He was completely absorbed in the dance movements, that his body began to vibrate to the rhythm of Lord Shiva. It created a lot of discomfort to Adishesha. The moment dance ended, Lord Vishnu’s body became light again.
Puzzled Lord Adishesha, asked his master what had happened. Lord explained to him that he was vibrating with the cosmic vibration of Lord Shiva. Fascinated by the process, he requested Lord Vishnu to teach him. Lord Vishnu blessed him and told him that very soon Lord Shiva would grace him and he would take a human birth to spread yoga, dance, and other aspects to everyone.
Overjoyed by hearing this, Adishesha started meditation to find out his mother. At the same time, a yogini by the name of Gonika, was meditating for a worthy son to whom she could impart her knowledge and wisdom. Then she took a handful of water to offer to Lord Sun. She then meditated upon the lord Sun and was about to offer the water. To her surprise, she saw a tiny snake moving in her palms. Immediately, it turned into a human form and pleaded with her to accept as her son. She named the child as Patanjali. (Pata means fallen or falling and anjali means folded palms). Gonika then agreed and happily passed her knowledge and wisdom.
He then went on to compile and documented different forms of yoga and written yoga sutras. And he also worked on mahabhasya and other important works. Now he had the more important task of disseminating his masterwork to everyone. He had very interesting and mysterious ways of teaching it to students.
Sage Patanjali decided to teach his knowledge to 1000 students from different parts of the land. They all gathered in the southern part of the Vindhya mountains. The master would teach from behind the screen or a veil, so that no one would see him. It is also interesting that he would say nothing, yet students at the end would leave with complete knowledge. He also put forward two conditions: no one should leave the room until the class is finished and no one should look behind the curtain. The students agreed.
It was going as per the agreed terms until a boy decided to finish his nature’s call. Desperate to relieve himself, he went out thinking that the master would not know what is happening this side. At this time, other students got curious and wondered how the master could teach so well without uttering a word and lifted the curtain. They broke the first condition. Patanjali saw this and cursed everyone and turned them into ashes. Except for the boy, who went out, everyone burned into ashes.
When the boy returned, he saw everyone in ashes. He begged the master for forgiveness. Master decided to forgive him thinking that at least one student left to pass on the knowledge. So he taught everything to that disciple. However, since he had broken the rule, the sage had to curse him to become a brahmarakshas, a ghost. He would be free from the curse only if he gets a student to whom he could pass on the knowledge. With that Patanjali disappeared.
The Brahmarakshasa, waited for long hanging on a tree to get a student. No one was ready to learn from him. Patanjali, out of compassion took pity on him and decided to become his student. Then the boy recited the sutras to Patanjali, who transposed them onto leaves and kept the bundle of leaves on the ground. It is said that, while he slept, a goat ate most of the leaves. Then Patanjali collected the remaining parts and left to the Himalayas.
The meaning of the story
The story seems to be incomplete and there is a lot more beneath the surface. But when we extract the spiritual meaning we get a lot more than the mere story. When we decipher the first part of the story, we will come to know who is sage Patanjali.
The stature and greatness of Sage Patanjali are beautifully explained in the story. He is said to be the incarnation of Serpent Adishesha.
In Hinduism, snakes are always associated with mysticism. In yoga, coiled up snake symbolizes kundalini. Kundalini is said to be located at the base of the spine. When Lord Vishnu seated on serpent Adishesha and experiencing the dance of Lord Shiva means a person meditating and experiencing meditation and his kundalini awakens. When kundalini awakens enlightenment happens and when enlightenment happens, one will become the knower of everything. Thus, Patanjali can be seen as the highest enlightened being and attained to ultimate oneness. He is symbolically depicted in the form of half-man and half-snake, because he has risen above the duality of life.
In the second part of the story, it is said that he was teaching the students from behind the curtain. It is symbolically depicted to show that the author is insignificant but only the creation is more important. In the East, especially in Hinduism, the author is merely a medium who passes the knowledge and ideas to the reader. There is nothing an author can create, he simply assimilates the information. Here there is no question of the author influencing the reader because the reader will have a direct connection with the learning itself.