Did Patanjali Hate the Body?

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Our interpretation of yoga philosophy matters.

Our translations may even have historical consequences. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2.40 is a case in point.

In a debate on elephant journal some time ago, prolific blogger Matthew Remski wrote “that yoga philosophy is always imperfect is proven by 2:40, which proposes that bodily disgust is a virtue. This is certainly a view that is subject to revision.”

Matthew Remski is here referring to Patanjali’s famed and sometimes controversial Yoga Sutra 91, Chapter 2, Verse 40, in which he states: Shauchat svanga jugupsa parairasansargahare

The late Georg Feuerstein, one of the most read and respected yoga scholars in the world today, translates this sutra as follows: “Through purity [he gains] distance towards his own limbs [and also] [the desire for] non-contamination by others.”

In his commentary, Feuerstein emphasizes that Patanjali urges us to be “on one’s guard” with respect to the body. To take good care of it, so that it becomes a good vehicle for spiritual pursuits, for meditation.

Not everyone has interpreted this sutra in such a body-positive way.  Not according to Indian blogger Srinirvan, who claims that Indian commentators misunderstood Patanjali and thereby brought not only yoga but the whole Indian civilization literally down with them.

He writes: “This one misunderstanding has created the worst sin for Indian consciousness.” Srinirvan is referring to the fact that Patanjali’s phrase “Jugupsa” has often been  translated as “disgust”  and that this translation has been “like a thorn inserted into the Indian consciousness. This is responsible for the untouchability and Western civilizations used it as a weapon to destroy the [Indian] civilization.”

According to Srinirvan, “this one misunderstanding” of Patanjali’s words may have had far-reaching consequences and is the cause of India’s caste system, Indian culture’s obsession with sexual repression and Hinduism’s many religious dogmas, etc. That’s a serious accusation!

Could we blame the dark underbelly of Indian civilization on a yoga philosopher? No, that is too simplistic, of course. The caste system was integral to Vedic society long before Patanjali and so were the sexual and social repression of women. Nevertheless, our ideas and myths, said the great mythologist Joseph Campbell, they are to live by, and they do indeed matter.

Many Indian religious folks, just like the puritans of the West, have had a conflicted relationship with the body. When living in India, I once practiced asanas with a group of male friends. While bringing my feet down during shoulder-stand (sarvangasana) practice, I jokingly touched the head of an Indian man next to me with my big toe.

He suddenly got up and ran away and was not seen in the ashram for several months. Little did I know at that time, but in India it is considered a sin to touch someone’s head with one’s foot. The foot is considered dirty; unless it’s the foot of a holy man, of course.

Once, while listening to NPR, I heard a well known Indian feminist writer say the following: “In India we have two views of women. They are either whores or Goddesses.”  But we should not just point our fingers at India. In the puritan West, the Madonna-Whore complex is deeply ingrained in men who marry “proper wives” while still having sex in secret with other, often younger, beautiful women.

Someone named Luke, a frequent contributor to debates on elephant journal, responded with these words to Remski’s remarks:

“2.40 does not say anything about virtue. It says that as a consequence of practicing cleanliness/purity, there is disgust for one’s own parts. A warning perhaps, but not a call to vomit. Cleanliness/purity is also said to result in sense-control, one-pointedness, and cheerfulness, among others.”

Not a call to vomit, perhaps, but still, does it not look as if Patanjali had a strong bout of duality when writing this sutra? His philosophy, unlike Tantra and Vedanta, was after all dualistic—the feminine Prakrti and the masculine Purusha are opposing poles in his cosmology, and he offers no clear way in which they both unite, in a deeper oneness of being, in Brahman, as in Tantra, for example.  But did he see the body as impure, that we need to distance ourselves from it in order to gain enlightenment from within?

It is very likely, because body-denying asceticism is integral to Indian yoga, except for in the Tantric and Bhakti-oriented schools of yoga, and also because Patanjali was a dualist, who at the same time believed in Ishvara as a Divine Being. But Patanjali did not clearly explain how the yogi would ever attain Oneness with this higher, transcendental, God-like being. (I wish, Patanajali, you and I could have that discussion over a cup of Chai about all this, but he is long gone unfortunately…) But for sure, in India, and more specifically in yogic asceticism, it is common to view the body, and all sensory enjoyments, as obstacles to gaining spiritual liberation.

The important part for us, I think, is in how we interpret, how we translate this traditional wisdom, how we practice it today. Do we, in our balancing of the body, mind and spirit suppress the body and its needs, or do we purify it, embrace it, balance it—lust, disease, imbalance and all—with love and care?

Hence, the key word here, I think, is “saucha” or purity. Not a dualistic, puritan cleanliness, but rather a holistic purity. The kind of purity that Nischala Joy Devi uses in her translation of the same sutra:

“Through simplicity and continual refinement, the body, thoughts, and emotions become clear reflections of the self within.”

When I lived in India, I witnessed firsthand the “misunderstanding” that Srinivan alludes to in his comments above, that the Indian ascetic disgust for the body has had many cruel consequences. And perhaps something had been seriously and often violently lost in translation. But these hand-cuffings of human instincts and clampdowns on cultural habits, did not originate with Patanjali, of course; they had been part of the Vedic culture of India long before 200 BCE, when he allegedly lived in Northern India. So, if anything, he expressed ingrained cultural traits.

While living in India, I saw expressions of an extreme, body-negating asceticism up close. Yogis holding their hands high above the head for 13 years, or more, straight, nails growing through their flesh. I also saw other forms of physical cruelty: untouchable women making gravel by the road with hammers, one rock at-a-time. I saw “impure” low caste villagers living as slaves. Was that all examples of what Srinivan called a grave, historical “misunderstanding?” Disgust for the body, for women, for that which is impure, low, base, vile, disgusting?

With this sutra, are we witness to something lost in translation? Or are we simply witness to an inbuilt disgust for the body within traditional India, the yoga community itself, and, as  here, expressed by Patanjali, one of yoga’s greatest philosophers?

What seems clear is that philosophy matters. It matters a great deal, in fact. How we write, read and translate philosophy matters. My own Indian teacher, Shrii Anandamurti, used to say that India has suffered greatly because of  the social appropriation of Shankaracarya’s Vedantic idea that “the world is an illusion.

Millions of Indians are poor and downtrodden precisely because such ideas makes them believe that there is no use in changing this world for the better—it’s just an illusion. So, there’s no need to change anything. Besides, life will be better for me in my next incarnation.

Why not make this life, this incarnation better? Why not make this world better?

The philosophical concept of the world as illusion, or the body as something disgusting, is in stark contrast to the Tantric idea that this world is sacred, that this world is real, that this world can be heaven on earth.

So, yes, philosophy matters.

What we are also witnessing in this debate over this sutra is a cultural, historical, and spiritual duality in India as well as the greater yoga community: namely the differences between the Vedic/Vedantic and the Tantric worldviews and practices, and philosophies.

This duality between the Vedantic idea that the world is an illusion and the Tantric idea that the world is sacred; the duality between dogma and the free expression of ideas; the duality between tradition and new transmission of ideas, the duality between religious tradition and mystic introspection; the duality between tradition and experimentation—these dualities are indeed complex and in themselves reflections of the pulsating, dynamic reality we live in.

I do not mean to sum this debate up by simply saying that Patanjali was wrong and that Vedanta is bad; that the yoga tradition is outmoded and that only the new, postmodern, democratic, innovative thinking of the West is good. No, not at all. Realty is much more complex and interesting than such philosophical and practical simplifications.

Poet Robert Bly summed this up nicely when he said that we need both vertical (traditional) and horizontal (innovative) thinking to lead balanced lives in a dynamic, ever-changing world. This means to energetically debate the old sayings, the old philosophers while also energetically developing new ideas.

But in doing so, we will, I think, realize there is much from the old that has been tested and tried throughout time, much that is worthy of saving and nurturing. And much, that, with a few alterations by writers such as Nischala Joy Devi, Matthew Remski and others, can bring fresh new insight and wisdom.

I venture to say that a large percentage of ancient yogic wisdom and practice is worthy of saving.

It is also worth noting that in India, Patanjali is actually not very popular, or well read. To the people of India, he is considered too dry, too dualistic, too philosophical. Why?

Because there is this other wild side to India; the Tantric side; the ecstatic side; the shamanic side; the Bhakti side, the magical side, the live-life-in-the moment side—that part of India in which caste, high and low, pure and impure melts in dance and devotion, in prayer and ritual, and reaches a place of heart and mind beyond the limits of philosophy. A place within the heart, where philosophy does not matter at all.

There is also another side to the Yoga Sutras rarely mentioned or acknowledged in the West: In India, Patanjali is not considered the main writer on yoga practice and philosophy. Tantra scholar David Gordon White points this out in an interview: “Even within the category of “Yoga Philosophy,” there are many more works on hatha yoga than on the YS; and if you look at works on tantric yoga (which are generally classified under the “Tantra” category and not the “Philosophy” category), there are many more of these manuscripts than there are YS manuscripts.”  Out of 30,000 manuscripts on yoga philosophy, according to White, only 500 are commentaries on the Yoga Sutras.

So, while yoga students and teachers in the West see Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as the foundation of yoga philosophy, Tantric writers have been much more prolific and have had much more influence on the culture and living practice of yoga in India.

Still, we need Patanjali as much as we need Nischala Joy Devi. We need both tradition and innovation. But more than anything, we yogis need deep asana practice, deep meditation practice, spiritual love, devotion, ecstasy, and wild kirtan dancing.

And we need to remember that without the contributions of Patanjali, and of the multiplicity and complexity of Mother India herself, we would not be having this discussion in the first place.

It is natural, even necessary, that we hold yoga philosophy—not just Patanjali’s, but all of the various schools—up for closer scrutiny. New philosophers, new interpreters sometimes improve upon the corpuses of the old. Sometimes they create more confusion. But as Luke wrote, there is no need to vomit, even if a philosopher, even if his name is Patanjali, hints at your body being even just a tad bit disgusting. Just alter the translation; alter the interpretation.


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Ed: Sara Crolick

{photo: Sculpture by Natalia Rosenfeld, www.nataliasculpture.com}

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Bob Weisenberg Oct 26, 2013 9:49am

Selected for Best of Yoga Philosophy.

Bob W.
Yoga Demystified

anonymous Oct 25, 2013 2:19pm

I join the pack in thanking you Ramesh for discussing the often cryptic, open to multi-faceted interpretaions of the YS.
As an aside, I am from an ultra-orthodox Jewish heritage, which also has conflicting, yet discriminating views of the body: guarded and contained, eg. the covenant of circumcision, to restrain oneself sexually.
Moreover the body is revered, cherished, especially sexually, for on the holiest of days, Yom Kippur, the High Priest was allowed but once a year to enter the Holy Of Holies chamber in The Holy Temple. Therein he would see the Ark of The Covenant, on the top of which were two cherubim, male and female children. If that year the Jewish nation was found unfavorable to God, the cherubim would miraculously have their backs to one another. On the other hand, if the Jewish nation was pleasing to the Lord, the figures would be cleaving to one another in ecstatic sexual coitus, and this in a most sacred place at a sacred time.
Whether these miracles are literal or not, isn't the point, but rather the view that the body and sex are sublime.

    anonymous Oct 27, 2013 1:09pm

    HastaDas, everything is indeed sacred and sublime, even that! Thank you!

anonymous Oct 23, 2013 11:56pm

Thanks for your food for thought, Ramesh. This is a well written article which offers a lot for readers to chew on!

    anonymous Oct 27, 2013 1:08pm

    Thanks, Auki, for enjoying it!

anonymous Oct 23, 2013 7:00pm

Doesn't it seem like the authors of all the great ancient texts purposely left every thing open for personal interpretations?
What a great thing.

    anonymous Oct 27, 2013 12:51pm

    Yes, and no, but in terms of YS, mostly no….

anonymous Oct 23, 2013 8:33am

See Pāṇini 1.4.24 varttika 1 for the reasoning behind reading svāt-jugupsā as being "on one's guard of" rather than "in disgust of" oneself/one's own/one's body. This reading reflects my own experience of purity (abated though it has), where actively keeping clean and observing serenity resulted in keeping preventatively clean, and generally avoiding crowds to help maintain this (and not because I saw crowds as disgusting, though admittedly it's a fine line unless you've been there).

I think what has created the most confusion about the Yoga Sūtras say is that its central assumption–effects have causes–is ignored. So, 2.40 is saying that one does not first disgust at or guard against one's body and then become "pure," but that these occur as consequences of the practice of cleanliness (as too the clarity, cheer, focus, victory of senses, self-vision, and yoginess 2.41 adds to what results from śauca).

Because of the brevity of sūtras, it is easy to read the results described as the practice itself and rather than the results of the practice. The focus on the fruits, rather than the dissolution of bonds or the activities to induce it (ala looking at the "magic powers" rather than the samyama meditation), is like pointing to an apple saying it is the sun and earth, rather than a result of them; the misunderstanding and resulting dismissal is due to the describing, not the apple, nor how it was created.

The focus on cause-effect also points to it being more a descriptive text than a prescriptive one, a guide, not a car on auto-pilot one must obey certain rules or be kicked off of, not the presentation of "truth" as some insist.

Looking at the text as a whole, disgust toward the body is not what YS suggests. The body is a helper when maintained, a hinderer when not. 1.30-1 lists hindrances and their accompaniments several of which are physical instability. Āsana keeps dualities from striking. The physical body is variously used as an object in about half of the "magic powers" meditations of the third chapter, and eventually says the body is "perfected," being beautiful, graceful, stable, etc. That the body and mind are separable, that perceiving exists distinct from all that is perceived/perceivable, and that sorting this out is yoga's "goal" clearly does not mean the "physical" is just to be dumped and sneered at, at least according to the YS.

All that said, and with gratitude for Ramesh's and other's writings, niggling about the details of just how a certain word may or may not have been used, I think is on the whole likely counter-productive to the peace peacing Peace practice, but in the absence of guides, guidelines/maps are all we can look to outside our own experience.

PS: White's 30,000 are of all philosophy, not yoga philosophy (and as mentioned tantra texts aren't usually included under philosophy). The interview doesn't say what the other numbers are (and it is no surprise that tantra would be more than works on the YS; by volume some individual tantrics might come close to the YS commentary on their own!). Also, the statistic doesn't reflect the YS's influence or regard, only its presence in 80% of cataloged manuscripts. (The numbers are from an interview part 1 and part 2, and White has either some serious math problems, wasn't sure about the numbers, or his conflation of categories is intentional sensationalization; hopefully his book (amazon lists it for publication May 25, 2014) will clarify.)

    anonymous Oct 27, 2013 12:50pm

    Paul, lots is lost in translation, yes, but jugupsa literally means disgust, aversion–there is no way around that… my main point with this piece was to point out the dangers of this duality of seeing the body as something to abhor and suppress. That tendency has and is still leading us as a world astray.

      anonymous Oct 27, 2013 8:37pm

      There is a "way around" via "on one's guard from" which is described in Pāṇini 1.4.24 varttika 1, and is not a trick or divergent reading but as valid and literal a reading as any, and seems better to me in the context of 2.41. If you can give me the reasons, grammatical or otherwise, why this isn't legitimate, I give my thanks in advance. 2.40 relies on similar functionality to imply the physical body instead of a more general "one's own person", namely the sense that not mingling with others to refer to sex. I think it is also about observing purity creating wariness to one's own biases and avoiding group-think, which I include here as an an example of a non-legitimate/divergent reading, implied though I think it is.

      On reflection, I think niggling (at least on one's own) is necessary if precepts are going to be used as personal guidelines, as a close reading and a close understanding are essential as they are to any law, niggling though it may be.

anonymous Oct 23, 2013 6:22am

The illusory nature of the world, which can be shown to be none other than the self, which can also be shown to be illusory, is an integral part of Tantra. But the most important point is to actually come to the authentic realization that all perception is illusion and not accept illusion as something we need to believe in. Without this vessel of the human body it is extremely difficult, if not impossible to come to this wisdom. It is very easy to declare all is a dream, all is illusion, all is impermanent. Looking for a firm footing in dharma is counter productive. Thanks Ramesh a couple of my Tibetan teachers after leaving Tibet meditated side by side in the hills above Rishikesh with sadhus…different view but dharma.

anonymous Oct 22, 2013 10:36pm

Wow, your interpretation of the Yoga Sutras is much different than mine. I'm not sure which translation/interpretation you read but I got nothing negative out of it. I did not get the impression that you're supposed to just stop caring about this life because it's an illusion. In fact in the one I read it said specifically not to drop out of life. You learn that this life is an illusion but you still live it you just don't let things bother you because you know it doesn't really matter in the long run. The Sutras I read also said that doing things like holding your hand over your head for years was not what Patanjali wanted at all.

But we all interpret things differently, this is just what I got out of it.

    anonymous Oct 24, 2013 7:19pm

    I am glad you encountered a translation/interpretation with a positive body-focus…

anonymous Oct 22, 2013 8:30pm

Sutra 2:40 is referring to disgust with the outer body because it is constantly breaking down no matter how much we do yoga. Eventually the body will decay and waste away. Although the material body is an asset it still remains a liability. The disgust grows even stronger as the spiritual body becomes more and more purified. And there is little time or even desire to associate with others due to the purification process.

    anonymous Oct 24, 2013 7:17pm

    Neil, the liability is focusing on the body as a liability. No matter the condition, we could not practice yoga, meditation, etc without a body, so it deserves to be embraced as the sacred temple it is, no matter the condition.

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Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes has traveled the world as a meditation teacher, Ayurvedic practitioner, author, and is currently the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center teaching yoga, meditation, and juice rejuvenation. He studied yoga therapy in Nepal and India, Ayurvedic Medicine at California College of Ayurveda, and naturopathic detox therapy at the AM Wellness Center in Cebu, Philippines. He is the author of four books, and he lives with his wife Radhika and Juno, a sweet, gentle Great Pyrenees, in the mountains near Asheville, North Carlina. Connect with him via his website: prama.org and rameshbjonnes.com.