Everything we know about the Yoga Sutra’s authorship comes from a single story.
No other evidence exists, but a new understanding of the so-called “Patanjali myth” can correct a two thousand year-old misconception and reveal who really authored the original version of the most important yoga text in history.
The process begins when we look at how certain influential men have attached mistaken conclusions to the story. From Georg Fueurstein’s The Yoga Tradition, here’s a prime example:
Hindu tradition has it that Patanjali was an incarnation of Ananta, or Shesha, the thousand-headed ruler of the serpent race that is thought to guard the hidden treasures of the earth. The name Patanjali was given to Ananta because he desired to teach Yoga on Earth and fell (pat) from Heaven on the palm (anjali) of a virtuous woman, named Gonika. Iconography often depicts Ananta as the couch on which God Vishnu reclines. The serpent lord’s heads symbolize infinity or omnipresence. Ananta’s connection to Yoga is not difficult to uncover, since Yoga is the secret treasure, or esoteric lore, par excellence.
Almost the entire paragraph is annotation singular to Fueurstein’s take. The only real story-parts are the breakdown of the compound word patanjali and a short reference to Gonika, and because Patanjali is not included in the actual story, his fictitious role is added with commentary.
B.K.S. Iyengar does the same thing. In The Tree of Life not only is the first sentence of his version conclusory, it should come with a spoiler alert. Mr. Iyengar: “In the Puranas we are told of Patanjali’s birth.”
That’s known in Hollywood as “stepping on the reveal.” So, channeling Joseph Campbell, it would be nice if someone would just let the myth speak for itself. But I’m one to talk. The title of this post doesn’t exactly leave things up to your interpretation.
My excuse—besides being a man—is that I’ve been at this for a decade and misogynistic enculturation has worn me down. So the way I see it, the cause advances now with your help, or it advances without me.
In other words, I’m out of pamphlets. Mr. Iyengar scooped up the last one because he loves the way I edited his version of the myth. I call it Light on Gonika. Seriously. I do. I don’t really know how Mr. Iyengar feels, but to me, this is Light on Gonika:
Gonika was an unmarried tapasvini and a yogini. Having gained tremendous knowledge, and great wisdom, and not finding one right pupil to whom to give her knowledge, she prayed to the Sun God.
Compare that to Mr. Fueurstein’s version, where Gonika is described only as “a virtuous woman.” Since Mr. Fueurstein avoids the idea that Gonika gave birth, immaculately or not, I don’t know why he bothered telling us about her virtue.
It’s also amazing how Mr. Fueurstein pacifies Gonika. Ananta just “falls on her palm.” Could she be less active?
So I call Mr. Fueurstein’s version Artificial Light on Ananta. For clarity and contrast, I’ve also simplified, reordered, and combined three of his statements:
Ananta is thought to guard the hidden treasures of the earth, and Yoga is the secret treasure par excellence, (but) Ananta desired to teach Yoga on Earth.
The added “but” at least helps the ideas track. But you know what I believe? I believe Ananta always sticks to his appointed duty. So he confuses people into thinking he taught Yoga on Earth, and I think he confused Mr. Fueurstein most of all.
Ananta also might make this blog post come out on a slow day so it stays in elephant journal’s “Yoga Latest” column and then disappears like it never existed. It’s okay. A divine reptile’s gotta do what a divine reptile’s gotta do. And what I’ve got to do is invoke literary privilege:
So Ananta is out. Mr. Iyengar doesn’t mention him in his version anyway—not even in the annotations I’ve removed—so what’s left is the actual story that (mostly) fate has dictated:
Having gained tremendous knowledge, and great wisdom, and not finding one right pupil to whom to give her knowledge, Gonika prayed to the Sun God and as an oblation took water in her hand, saying, “This knowledge has come through you, so let me give it back to you.” At that moment she opened her eyes and saw something move in her hand.
Great. Everything we need to understand what happened to Gonika is there. Even better, esoteric information about what happened to yoga is there.
And I give myself credit. I didn’t like the abrupt ending at first. I hated that the snake wasn’t really gone. I told myself it was close enough:
“Gonika just sees something move in her hand. It could be anything. Literarily recoiled and imbedded deep into a critical last sentence that couldn’t be edited, the goddamn un-removable snake could be anything.”
But, really, it was a snake. The snake idea just wouldn’t die, and eventually I realized why that was. Unnamed, unidentified, and undifferentiated, the snake is solely a mythic symbol. He represents knowledge, and because he comes into an author’s hand, he represents the seed of textual knowledge lovingly transmitted from a spiritual source.
Now I’m even wondering if Mr. Iyengar should have used the word “slither” instead of “move.” I don’t know. Maybe “slither” is too on the nose.
Moving on, let’s consider another mythic snake. Regular Christians think the one that supposedly “tempts” Eve in the Garden of Eden was evil. But mystic Christians know he symbolizes knowledge and even though knowledge is a very tricky thing, in the right hands, it can be textually translated to great advantage.
Of course, I don’t know if Eve authored anything. There’s no evidence that she did, but the Garden of Eden myth does tell us Eve actually shared a meal with a snake, making it clear that the knowledge necessary to author a momentous spiritual composition was given to her.
But my real point here has to do with the challenge of adopting new ideas. If we all grew up believing that the Garden of Eden snake authored the bible, then it would be hard for us to hear something different. But, objectively, if there was money on it, and we had to guess who was the real-life author—either the snake or Eve— all bets would be on Eve.
Besides, no one would construct a myth about a real-life man being born as a snake in someone’s palm just for the esoteric value of the story. Immaculate conception? Okay. Something “fell” into Gonika. But a reptilian palm trick? That’s crazy.
What isn’t crazy is using the word patanjali solely in the context of narrative action. The word pat tells us something fell and (while Fueurstein was confused on this point as well) the word anjali means it was a prayer. A prayer is what fell.
But Patanjali is a common Indian name. That’s why it doesn’t matter if someone named Patanjali authored a famous grammatical text. There’s not a single shred of evidence connecting the grammarian to the Yoga Sutra.
That’s because the only real information in the so-called “Patanjali myth” is about Gonika. So she is not just the myth’s main character, she’s really the myth’s only character, and even if she weren’t—even if Patanjali was actually a part of the story—Gonika would still be the only one with a problem to overcome.
Storytelling 101: your main character has a problem. Patanjali has no problem, so we know the story wasn’t about him. No one was ever “told of Patanjali’s birth.” They were told about someone dying to teach yoga that ended up not finding one right pupil with whom to share her knowledge.
Whoa. As I was writing that last sentence, I was hit by a wave of emotion. It’s just so terribly sad. When Gonika says, “This knowledge has come through you,” she’s speaking of the knowledge she already received and then couldn’t teach.
For a born teacher there could be no greater pain. I think Gonika’s suffering was so big that even Mr. Fueurstein felt it. He got confused and told us Ananta was the one who “desired to teach Yoga on Earth,” but the universe-sized description was there because real emotion wafts off Gonika’s story.
You can feel it too. And on a personal human-to-human level, it helps to open your heart to what it was like for Gonika the first time she received knowledge. Young and filled with hope, she believed in her soul that sharing her knowledge would change the world.
Plus, it wasn’t just an innocent’s dream. Gonika was right to feel the way she did about changing the world. She really would do that later in life, bringing a whole new yoga—one of only five main forms—into existence.
But before the miracle, Gonika was so disheartened she asked the Sun God to take back the knowledge. That’s huge. Imagine how much she must have been hurting. I’m crying now thinking about it. Seriously. I prefer to be a little glib about these things, but there’s no room for glibness.
And I find it especially heart-wrenching because Gonika bore her pain with great dignity. Despite what she’d been through, she didn’t plead with the Sun God, she just courteously asked him to do what was right.
It had to have been killing her, though, because Gonika knew what she had. Her knowledge was precious beyond measure—which is why she didn’t force it on anyone. In India at that time, I’m sure there were great students. They weren’t “right” only because her knowledge was so new.
Of course, not forcing it on anyone only increased the pressure. It was just more wisdom, and what was germinating inside her needed to be taught, not only in relation to her being a teacher, but in relation to the knowledge itself, which was connected to an imminent birth in huge evolutionary need of happening.
No surprise, Gonika’s heart cracks open. It has to if she’s to let knowledge come back through her and return to the Sun God. The Sun represents the Soul, so her soul is completely open here as well and that exposure should give us what I’ll refer to as a contact vulnerability.
But we also don’t have to worry. Gonika felt a kind of birth pain that could only be experienced by someone evolutionarily positioned the way she was. It was time for only the third yogic form in history to be born and that could only happen if someone accessed the knowledge necessary to birth just the right teaching tool at just the right moment.
It was, then, pretty much a singular event. In five thousand years of yoga, there have been four other similar moments, but none of the other ones were linked to such a specific transmission of knowledge, and none of them were so well recorded.
And even though Gonika’s text was purposely buried a long time later, her actual story does have a happy ending. Gonika gets what she needs to teach. She gets the seed of knowledge that she can birth into the perfect teaching tool, and she’ll go on to instruct a new yogic form best identified as jnana yoga.
But right now, I’m still feeling that climactic moment when something moved in her palm. It must have been initially horrifying, not because she’s seeing a snake, but because she’s sensing more knowledge.
I just hope she could feel it was not just a repeat. That’s likely because the second transmission had form, which is another reason to keep the snake image. It shows the difference between the Sun God’s two gifts.
So maybe the second gift didn’t so much “slither” as it did wiggle—like textual spermatozoa. Sorry, but again, the image is apt since Gonika will have to transform what the Sun God implanted and the transformation will happen through her own creative birthing process.
The actual storytelling ends before that part, but it’s perfect. On an exoteric level, cutting things off so abruptly discourages us from thinking Gonika gave birth to an actual being, and on an esoteric level, it encourages us to let ourselves really feel the moment of conception.
Again, it’s perfect. Gonika looks at her hand, sees something move and we fade to black.
Then we put the rest together. In our minds, we see Gonika going on to author the original version of the Yoga Sutra. And while her text no longer exists, and while the Patanjali myth may continue to cover-up the real story, the energy of Gonika’s teaching tool is still here on Earth.
It didn’t fall here and disappear. Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, so what moved in Gonika’s hand is still moving in the world. The words are lost, but the energy of the “fallen-prayer” is still here. Literally, the patanjali is still with us.
And while the yoga of our time is hatha yoga, how we practice now makes us incredibly sensitive to the way prayerful energy moves. Every pose is a prayer position. Every pose helps every other pose be a better prayer position.
So for us, the praying happens hathayogically. When we move from the specific palm sensitization of Downdog back up to Samastitihi, we bring magical energetic spirituality to our anjali-mudras and the whole experience forestalls ideological conflict. There’s no arguing about energy. We all believe in it.
We know what comes through the Sun God comes through us. We’re all Sun Gods, sensing what energetically moves in our palms all the time. Gonika praying to the Sun God is also symbolic. In myths, the Sun represents the Soul, and hathayogically, we can all pray to the Soul together, without ideological debate.
Again, for us, it’s all about energy. It’s also about Energy with a capital E, but in any case, we can all manifest prayer energy and experience the magnetic force of what it attracts. We’re hatha yogis, and practicing on that level creates hathayogic inclusiveness.
Of course, yoga was different in Gonika’s time. That’s also part of the story. Gonika couldn’t teach what she knew because, consistent with yoga’s overall evolution, it connected to a more democratically inclusive yoga that didn’t yet exist. The yoga of Gonika’s time was bhakti yoga. The yoga she end up teaching was jnana yoga.
So Gonika was the last real bhakti since the era of Bhakti Yoga ended with her. Once people started doing jnana yoga, the era of Jnana Yoga began and it lasted a thousand years. There have been five Yogic eras, within which people have practiced five yogic forms. And here’s the short, but esoterically critical explanation for that:
We do yoga, but Yoga also does us.
In our time, we do hatha yoga, and Hatha Yoga also does us. In Gonika’s time, everyone did bhakti yoga, and Bhakti Yoga did them.
Then Gonika helped jnana yoga come into existence. Maybe what I’m explaining here is the hathayogic version of her lost teachings. But in any case, her text came into existence when it did because Bhakti Yoga had evolved into Jnana Yoga. It “did” everyone jnanayogically, and the next Yogas did people karmayogically and hathayogically, so Gonika was the last bhakti.
But Gonika is also very significantly described as a “tapasvini.” There’s no contradiction in that, because tapasvinis are also bhaktis. Both groups are yogic spiritualists, but tapasvinis are much more hardcore, and in Gonika’s time, they definitely did not do motherhood.
And with that, I’m also done. I know it’s an abrupt ending, but as you should understand now, sometimes an abrupt ending can be meaningful. Uh-oh, something just moved in my hand. Kidding.
Oh, but hold on. One more thing. In case those of you who practice Iyengar Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga are wondering what to do about the class opening “Patanjali” invocation, I suggest calling it the “patanjali” invocation.
If you’re a teacher, you can explain that in context of Gonika having authored the Yoga Sutra. I teach students to do the actual chant the same way as always. I just explain everything to them and then invoke a sacred connection to the effect of fallen-prayers. Om.
Shit. I can’t stop yet. I’ve put too much emotion into this post not to end this with my real feelings. I mean, come on. The world is filled with female yoga teachers. Thousands of women are teaching thousands of teacher-training programs. How long is the lie that only male yoga practitioners have ever done anything historic going to be promulgated in those trainings? Can’t that end now?
Obviously, the best use of the social media connects to democratic change. Let people know we’re literally changing yoga history. This has nothing to do with religion, but if Hindu traditionalists complain, remind them that the Hindu orthodoxy has always been opposed to people practicing yoga—especially hatha yoga. We’re not stepping on their beliefs; we’re just changing ours.
Okay. Now I am really done.
But instead of “move” maybe Mr. Iyengar should have used “hiss.” Gonika hears something hiss in her hand. Nah. Again, too on the nose. Although it does connect nicely to the Nada—the soundless sound—believed to emanate from the Universe’s core: Gonika hears something hiss in her hand…Gonika sees something move in her hand…I don’t know…”move” goes better with hatha yoga…
Scott Smith Miller is the Director of Western Yoga College. He has written three yoga books, including “What Is(n’t) Hatha Yoga”. Go to www.westernyogacollege.com for more information.
Editor: Malin Bergman
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