By Srivatsa Ramaswami
Patanjali is a name that generates awe, veneration and inspiration among experts of disciplines like Yoga. That his work “Yoga Sutra” is considered to be the most authentic work on Yoga by conventional Yogis is well known. But he is also considered to be one of the greatest original contributors towards the development of the classical language Sanskrit. Then there are many practitioners of ancient medical system, the Ayur Veda who consider him as ‘Caraka’, the author of one of the earliest texts on Ayurveda, the Caraka Samhita. There are many experts of Indian traditional dance who consider Patanjali as an exceptional exponent of Indian Dancing system.
How is it possible for one person to excel in many disparate and original disciplines, as the old timers believe? Is it possible that there were different Patanjalis who lived at different places at different times who wrote different texts under the name of Patanjali, as some of the modern historians would aver?
A brief of account of Patanjali’s story may be in order. One of the popular stories refers to Patanjali as an incarnation of Adisesha, the serpent king, who acts as the couch of Lord Vishnu. Once, Lord Vishnu after He came out of His divine slumber narrated the vision of Siva’s cosmic dance which He experienced in the divine dream. He also said that Lord Siva wanted Adisesha to take a human birth and prepare an authentic work on Sanskrit grammar, as the human race was going through a crisis without a proper structured language. Lord Siva had earlier created the original basis for Sanskrit grammar through 14 sutras (aphorisms), called Maheswara Sutras, said to have emanated from the sounds of the hand drum (damaru) of the Lord during the Cosmic Dance. Panini who witnessed the dance wrote an elaborate text in 8 chapters the entire work of grammar, based on Siva’s 14 Sutras, but because they were terse and ambiguous, could not take roots among the people. Now the Lord wanted Patanjali to write a detailed commentary on Panini’s works so that Sanskrit would become accessible to mankind.
Adisesha in due course took a human form, born/adopted to/by a great soul, Gonika and therefore also known as Gonikaputra. He was known as Patanjali, as he is said to have descended or fallen (pat) from heaven, answering to the prayers (anjali) for a worthy son by Gonika. After leading an ascetic, yogic life, Patanjali felt ready to start his life’s mission. He traveled to Chidambaram, in South India, which boasts of the famous dancing Siva temple. There were other great souls, divine beings, sages and yogis all ready to watch the cosmic dance. Siva directed Patanjali to watch the dance carefully so that he could completely understand the Maheswara aphorisms and write a proper commentary to Panini’s work.
Patanjali went into yogic Samadhi, so that the divine dance could be experienced, so did the other yogis gathered around there. He watched the dance minutely grasping the nuances of the Siva Sutras as the sounds emanated from the drum (damaru) of the dancing Nataraja. And when the dance reached a crescendo, everyone in yogic trance was swaying with the dance of the Lord and in raptures. When the dance stopped, they experienced oneness with the Lord, the supreme consciousness, the ultimate reality. This they realized was the advaitic oneness of the Vedantins or Nirodha Samadhi of the Yogis.
Patanjali then left the place and very carefully wrote a great commentary (Maha Bhashya) on the Panini’s wok after getting all the clarifications by minutely watching the dance of Siva. To cut the story short, Patanjali had to really work hard to propagate his work. Since he was the sole repository of the knowledge at that time, he had to teach as many people as possible. An interesting episode is mentioned about how Patanjali reached a larger student population. He stood behind a curtain separating him from the large student population sitting in front of him. He assumed his original form of a thousand headed (hooded) cobra, and taught each of the students, one on one. It helped him teach and answer questions individually. He was a thousand teachers at the same time. Without closed circuit TV, Internet and the print facility, it was the best possible solution at that time!
Then he also wrote the Yoga Sutras, meant to clean the mind and weaken the influence of Rajas and Tamas, and become very Satwic and ultimately transcend all the three gunas and attain stage of Kaivalya or spiritual freedom. He is also credited with another important work on Ayur Veda, the ancient medical system.
Let us get back to the original question. How can one individual get the expertise needed to write three authoritative and original texts so important to humanity? The answer is that he got all the knowledge from Lord Siva the Iswara. In fact Patanjali says in Yoga Sutras that Iswara is the ultimate repository of all knowledge, and by meditating on Him all knowledge can be obtained. And as mentioned earlier, the basic informations or cues of Vyakarana or grammar came from the dancing Siva’s drum. It is also believed by musicologists that the basic seven musical notes also came from the Lord’s drum. Patanjali, after watching the dance of Siva became a great dancer himself, and again classical dancers in India revere Patanjali as a great dancer. There is a beautiful onomatopoeic poetic work in Sanskrit attributed to Patanjali, called ‘Siva Tandava Stotra’.
When Patanjali went into Samadhi, not only was he able to witness the Cosmic Dance, but also got to experience the ultimate state of Yoga, the Nirvikalpa or Nirodha Samadhi. With that experience and the grace of the Iswara he was able to write an authentic text on Yoga. Lord Siva is also known as Yogiswara, the Lord of all Yogis. He is also known as Bhaishajya or one who has the wisdom of Curing. And Patanjali could get the necessary expertise on Ayurveda also from Siva and thus wrote a medical text par excellence.
A civilization is said to be at its best when the people enjoy good health, express themselves clearly and profoundly, through a perfect language and have clear and pious minds. Bhartruhari, a great scholar and grammarian emphasizes the purity of the three basic human activities, of mind, body and spech, called the tri-karanas. And Maharshi Patanjali is believed to have written three great texts and evidence in terms of a eulogy is to be found in the ancient prayer said by thousands of yogis all over the world, daily, as they start the yoga sadhana.
yogena cittasya padena vācām
malaṁ śarīrasya ca vaidyakena
yopākarottaṁ pravaraṁ munīnāṁ
Through Yoga, of the mind, by grammar, of language
Through medical science of the body,the drosses,
The one who eradicated, to Him of the lineage of sages,
To Patanjali, I remain offering my salutation