The Yoga Sutras and The Red Violin: a review of David Gordon White’s New Book

Canadian director François Girard’s 1998 film “The Red Violin” tells the fable of a miraculous instrument, crafted by one Nicolo Bussotti (a character modeled on Antonio Stradivari) that passes through the hands of several virtuosi over four centuries and three continents. Its rapturous tone beguiles generations of listeners. Several of its players die in ecstasy while playing it. Don McKellar’s chronologically labyrinthine plot sweeps the violin towards a fateful auction in the present day, concealing to the very end the source of the violin’s deadly mystique. Spoiler alert: We learn in the final minutes that the blessing and curse of the instrument is apparently soaked into the very grain of its soundboard. Bussotti had been crafting the violin for his unborn child. As he’s finishing the final sanding, he is summoned home to find that his wife has died in labour along with the baby. In abject grief, he bleeds her corpse to create a final vermillion varnish for the instrument, before going mad. The violin’s power is rooted in this single terrible, revelatory night: so say these storytellers, who in uncovering the mystery play the taut strings of our yearning for an essence we dream we could rescue from the vrittis of history.

Now here’s a true story about old things. This past spring, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published the results of double-blind test of old and new violins, performed at the Auditorium Coeur de Ville in Vincennes, Paris. Ten elite soloists compared the sound qualities of twelve instruments – six by 18th-century luthiers and six by contemporary makers. The soloists clearly preferred new instruments over old, and were unable to reliably distinguish their ages. These were the types of performers who might pursue a red violin to the ends of the earth. But the test proved that a violin’s age or reputation does not create its tone. Playing it does.

In a wildly entertaining tour-de-force of deconstructive research, David Gordon White’s The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: A Biography (Princeton University Press, released today), is an extended meditation on the red violin of modern Yoga, along with its most famous players. The Sutras have an uncertain beginning in the hands of a forgotten master. Countless pandits, commentators and dilettantes have played and brokered them, each according to their period and training. The Sutras have travelled the world on scrolls, folios, and now through pixels. They’ve been copied, miscopied, translated, mistranslated, silenced and silent for generations, appropriated and stolen, dressed up for show and stripped down for parts. They have born silent witness to the passage of kings, religions, and philosophical and scientific paradigms. Everyone who touches them claims possession over their essence – the blood in the varnish. But no one can agree upon what that essence is. And like the ten soloists puzzling in their welder’s goggles over equally beautiful instruments in a Paris concert hall, we are compelled to ask in the end: what do origins and authenticity mean, and why does it matter?

I won’t attempt to interrogate the breadth of White’s scholarship in this review, because I’m so not qualified – there are very few who are. But with notes and a bibliography so voluminous PUP opted to store them online, I’ll assume that he’s covered the available sources. Some may claim that an oral tradition for holding the essence and historical continuity of the Yoga Sutras eludes White’s reach, because it would only be accessible to initiated adepts, but I’ll deal with that below. I’ll focus in equal parts on the contours of his data, and what they may mean to the contemporary practitioner. I’ll begin with a synopsis of the sutra “biography”, give a list of idols that this history hollows out, wonder aloud what White actually feels about the “blood in the varnish”, and conclude with a few notions of what this deconstruction frees us up to do.

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hat are the Yoga Sutras, and how did they get here, according to White? Titled either as we know them, or as a part of a larger work called the Yoga Shastra (228), the 195 aphorisms are compiled in “Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit” (10, 230) from as many as six sources (35) within a several century range straddling the Common Era by an editor who may or may not be a commentator on Panini’s grammar or the serpent-boy lauded in the Shiva temple of Chidambram (37). Whether he was a scholar or a god impacts the reception of the Sutras as smriti or sruti (written or “heard”), which in turn would shed light on whether they were ever chanted or not. (40) The text has often been thought to utilize the “older” vocabulary of Samkhya metaphysics, but it’s becoming clearer that the two systems are chicken-and-egged (23), with the further complication that the sutra’s first commentator, Vyasa – who may have been a) Patanjali himself (226-234), b) a contemporary of the composition or c) could have written several centuries later to subvert the supposedly “more original” Buddhist message of the text (41) – unduly emphasized Samkhya terms such as “prakriti” and “purusha” (11), perhaps to the neglect of the more repeated Buddhist terms like “shunya”. Of course, “Vyasa” is a recurrent nom de plume throughout Indian literature, so there’s also that.

Spoiler alert 2: White wryly concludes the sleuthwork of the “origins” question this way:

“[W]e can be certain of a number of things: that the book you have been reading is the reception history of a work that may or may not be titled the Yoga Sutra; that the author of that work may or may not have been named Patanjali; and that that work may or may not have been the subject of an original and separate commentary by a person probably not named Vyasa.” (234)

So the first readings that survive for us are riddled with mystery and misreading. We’re off to the races, though the course is unmarked.

The text is then commented upon by everyone, it seems, except practicing yogis. (5) A certain Shankara, who may be the precocious 9th-century theologian or a post 14th-century writer (41), Hinduizes the arguably atheistic aphorisms by positioning the text’s “Ishvara” as the cosmic creator. Vacaspati (“Talk-Meister”) Mishra, 950CE, the despot Bhoja in the 11th century, and finally the Qualified Nondualist Vijnanabhikshu in the 16th century each throw down strong commentarial tracks. (42-45)

But the text’s shine is starting to dull. In the parallel literature of the Puranas through to the 14th century, Yoga is mentioned, but the Sutras are largely ignored, and Patanjali is absent from the lineage lists (46), signifying his gradual isolation from a practice and literary culture increasingly concerned with “Vedic” authenticity. White relates: “we can see that by the twelfth century, Patanjali’s system had been caught in a pincer movement… rejected by orthodox Brahmins for being beyond the pale of the Vedas and by the burgeoning ranks of Hindu devotees of gods like Krishna, Vishnu and Shiva for being non-devotional.” (52) Vijnanabhikshu’s commentary would constitute the last interest paid to the book until the period of the British Raj.

Did the Sutras go underground at that point? Were they kept alive in Himalayan caves, chanted from chest to chest? In response to the Desikachar family’s shifting hagiographical claims (more below) that T. M. Krishnamacharya inherited an ancient chanting practice for the Sutras (208), White has this to offer:

“There is no explicit record, in either the commentarial tradition itself or in the sacred or secular literature of the past two thousand years, of adherents of the Yoga school memorizing, chanting, or claiming an oral transmission for their traditions.” (80)

Full disclosure: this stings me personally a bit, as I spent some time in my own exploration of the Sutras riffing on the implications of what I assumed to be its oral culture milieu. My intention was to accentuate the intimacy and indeterminacy of the Sutras-as-conversation. But I didn’t need to rely on this particular fiction, which I’d inherited by osmosis from the Desikachar literature and also from sitting occasionally with a Toronto-based pandit who taught Patanjali as if he were echoing the ages. It turns out that Derrida was write: text can be just as indeterminate as speech, especially as far as the Sutras go.

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s worth pausing to reflect on this historical lacuna for a moment and what it might mean to practitioners today. An essential (and essentialist) story in the marketing of Modern Postural Yoga (MPY) holds that Patanjali’s text is carried by a continuous flame through the ages, never snuffed out, but often hidden in such ways as to increase its radiance – as in the “Shangri-La” of the Himalayas, “the pristine haunt of authentic sages in whose entranced minds all of India’s ancient wisdom had survived intact.” (99) White points out that this particular construction of authenticity, perennial to Indian lore, was shrewdly plucked and packaged for modern broadcast and consumption by the certifiable fraudulence of Madame Blavatsky and her gaggle of “polyglot clackers” who claimed direct contact with “Himalayan Masters” over the “magnetosphere” of Tibet, and through them channeled and churned out several very odd distortions of the Sutras as ignominy chased them all the way to India itself. (103-115)

It’s worth remembering that several prominent MPY lineages — one is tempted to say “brands” — continue to be rooted in this story, on exquisite display here as Pandit Rajmani Tiganuit leads the camera through a tour of the Himalayan Institute’s new Sri Vidya shrine in Khajuraho.

The temple, which is actually far south of the snowy peaks for which the Institute is named, is sparsely decorated. A lonely portrait of Tiganuit’s teacher, Swami Rama hangs in a room above an artificial cave containing a rock “that once existed in Tibet” that Rama’s teachers going back “thousands of years” have sat upon to meditate, according to Tiganuit. Front and centre in what appears to be the shrine’s atrium are the Sutras, printed in bold Devanagri, mounted in four large picture frames, one for each pada I imagine. They are tablets worthy of Cecil B. DeMille.

As the camera pans over the tablets, Tiganuit weaves a now-common pastiche of sentiments inspired by the Sutras, yet seeming to have nothing to do with them:

The shrine is unique in the sense that we don’t have a statue of a particular God or Goddess, but… the body of knowledge that continues to provide guidance and direction to mankind. That body of knowledge itself is at the core of the shrine. This is the epitome of what we teach, what we believe in. The shrine is a living example of the message of the sages, that we must create a bridge between ancient wisdom and modern science, between East and West, and we must remove the gap that exists between different cultures and civilizations, and we must learn to build a bridge between our worldly lives and our spiritual lives. And that is why here, we have Yoga Sutra of Patanjali…

It appears that the tablets have full view of the newly constructed yajna pit that anchors the courtyard in polished concrete and tile. Lest we think that picking apart the knots of cultural exchange and appropriation in MPY will be in any way easy, here we see a reconstructed Patanjali meet a revisioned Vedism in a temple built by a transnational Yoga corporation, dedicated to an evangelizing Swami specializing in Hatha siddhis who was chased back to India by an impending State of Pennsylvania lawsuit involving allegations of sexual predation.

Rajmani Tiganuit bowing before the Yoga Sutras.
Rajmani Tiganuit bowing before the Yoga Sutras in Khajuraho.


The tour of the Khajuraho shrine is a perfect figure for White’s background summation the MPY melting pot:

“Over the past century, [Swami] Vivekananda’s legacy [of creative bricolage] has prevailed in the yoga subculture, where teachers continue to confuse Yoga philosophy with Puranic, Hatha, and Tantric doctrines; to present western metaphysical and scientistic concepts in Indian trappings; to identify Yoga as a healing tradition; to assert the scientific foundations of Yoga; and to present Raja as the highest form of Yoga.” (142)

I digress here because whatever “satya” meant to Patanjali, for us it must in part mean this: history is complex, and we can stunt each other psychically by pretending otherwise. Confabulation erects the hollowest authority, inevitably eroding what it seeks to bolster. Truthfulness requires confessing that no one possesses the truth, or special access to it, and that we must take responsibility for our creative additions to the river of discourse, without passing them off as the blessings of perfected souls no one can see. Myths can encourage and console, but we can pay dearly for them with our integrity.

As a further aside, I’d say that satya in the practice of MPY additionally requires a careful study of the facts of colonialism (and as Richard Freeman reportedly said of Pattabhi Jois’ attitude – “reverse colonialism”), the drives of orientalism both romantic and appropriative, reductionist mystification, reductionist commodification, and plain old human folly.

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]ollowing the three-century “Yoga desert” (52) that White sifts through for a thread that might connect Vijnanabhikshu to the present era, his story rolls into the oak paneled studies of the early Orientalists — they used the named without shame — who were on contract to the British and French East India Companies to learn enough Sanskrit to construct a colonial law that didn’t seem too foreign. Henry Thomas Colebrooke (1765-1837) collected thousands of shastras, of which only a tiny portion concern Yoga proper, and which seem to have been neglected by the traditional brahminical colleges of at least Benares at the time. This is reported by Colebrooke’s colleague William Ward, who estimated that only five or six students out of one hundred thousand were actively studying the shad darshanas. (72-3) This left Colebrooke in the dark when it came to getting educated help on his 1823 essay “On the Philosophy of the Hindus”, which nonetheless produced a passable rendering of Samkhya and Yoga metaphysics. By and large, he was quite sympathetic to Indian philosophy, although he was highly critical of the magical-ascetic “fanaticism” he detected in Patanjali. (65)

Early Indologists from abroad and India itself who were interested in Yoga would continue to be stymied by this lack of qualified support for their translation and commentarial efforts, so much so that every early aspiring translator, from James Ballantyne to Rajendral Mitra to the Arya Samaj founder Dayananda Saraswati – who wandered in search of Yogic help for nine years – complained that no one in India knew Yoga anymore. (73,112) White summarizes the mood:

“…[W]e may conclude that Colebrookes’ laconic, if not hostile, treatment of the Yoga Sutra undoubtedly stemmed from the fact that by his time, Patanjali’s system had become an empty signifier, with no formal or informal outlets of instruction in its teachings. It had become a moribund tradition, an object of universal indifference.” (80)

White had me at “empty signifier”, for to me satya these days also means reading the heritage of Yoga with all of the post-structuralist rigour we can muster. I only wondered once at White’s commitment here – in his discussion of the wonderful find of Bengali scholar Rajendral Mitra’s 1883 translation of the Sutras. Long out of print, with only a few extant copies available, White finds reading the microfilm a “revelation”(93), and offers Mitra’s elegant synopsis of the Sutras’ arguments in seventeen bullet points, introducing them with “One only wishes that Patanajali had presented his system in the same way, since it would have made the Yoga Sutra far more accessible.” (95)

This is as close as White comes, I think, to romancing the blood in the varnish. His praise of Mitra’s work almost seems to transcend an appreciation for sharp scholarship into an implicit belief that the Sutras do have a clear message that can be recovered by the sincere specialist. I can understand the impulse arising in someone sifting through as much bunk as White has had to, and feeling he has found a rare comrade-in-clarity in a figure like Mitra. But it raises the question, not so much for White as for the entire discipline: does the identification of something as “Patanjali Yoga” as a category of study, and the seeking out of the best and rarest sources for that category, naturally beguile a scholar into imagining implied essences, even as he or she is describing the thing-in-itself as a herd of cats? The Sutras are an unstable collection of verses compiled over centuries by nameless people in forgotten places and frozen into folios by the accidents of text production. Can we resist the desire to hunt the blood in the varnish?

[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ooping back to White’s introduction is a good way of introducing the truly modern era of Sutra-brokerage that accompanies the rise of MPY, beginning with the reconstructions of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902):

“In the wake of this long hiatus, the “recovery” that followed the text’s rediscovery was a tortured process, generating much sound and fury, often signifying nothing, as its many modern interpreters projected their fantasies, preconceptions, hopes, dreams, and personal agendas onto Pantanjali’s work in unprecendented ways. As a result, the Yoga Sutra has been something of a battered orphan for the better part of the last two centuries, often abused by well-meaning or not-so-well-meaning experts and dilettantes, mystics and pragmatists, reformers and reactionaries who have seized upon it as a source of political, intellectual, or symbolic capital.” (16-17)

Whatever category of expertise we assign to Vivekananda, he clearly seized the Sutras with one well-meaning and one opportunistic hand. Let it be known that the Swami hammered out his translation and commentary on the text, to be published in 1896 under the title of Raja Yoga, in less than six months, while living in New York, with no support from scholarly peers or practitioners. White has even combed through Vivekananda’s book-order receipts to discern whether he’d acquired any extant sutra commentaries, and found none. “[I]t appears that he did a great deal of free associating in his work, relying on his own extensive background knowledge of the Puranas, Indian philosophy…” to produce not a translation, but a “paraphrase”. (127) But the Swami didn’t stop there with his creativity. He freely injected his influences: Neo-Vedanta, the mesmeric backwash from his arm’s-length relationship to the Theosophists, Western scientism and the pseudo-scientific language of Western spiritualism. White:

“…[Raja Yoga] was, at bottom, a self-help book grounded in Western esotericism, but because it was the work of an Indian, its Western readership read it as an authentic work of Eastern philosophy, on the ‘Science of Yoga’… (125)

As an aside, MPY practitioners should know that positioning Yoga as “science”, as a focal point of Vivekananda’s presentation, carried with it the anti-colonialist goals of Indian-renaissance movements like the Brahmo Samaj, of which he was a central figure prior to meeting with Ramakrishna in 1884. Claiming Yoga as a science that can challenge Eurocentric “secularist” epistemology is now a more than a pro-Indian theme of cultural unification: it is a dominant note of contemporary Hindutva worldview, and global practitioners who sing it may be unconsciously allying themselves with a politics they would otherwise reject.

None of Vivekananda’s creative excesses trouble me. White makes clear that the remixing of Patanjali dates back to Vyasa (or Patanjali-as-Vyasa), and that the red violin has patiently borne everyone’s music and playing style. What is now intolerable, however, is the lack of transparency in the interpretive community. Almost nobody is transparent in the commentarial history. Shankara never explicitly mentions his Advaita agenda, Vijnanabhikshu does not confess his devotionalism. Colebrooke and the Orientalists were painfully unaware of their reductions. Hegel is out to Romantic lunch: “…the first,” writes White, “in a long line of dilettantes, both Western and Indian, who have interpreted the Yoga Sutra on the basis of little or no understanding as means to furthering their own agendas.” (91) In the present day, I’m only aware of Chip Hartranft and Edwin Bryant making their positions transparent as Buddhist and Vaisnava, respectively. “Geshe” Michael Roach, by contrast, doesn’t bother to reveal that his entire “translation” effort is a front for his New Age Neo-Buddhist ideology.

It’s not surprising: the notion of engaging transparently from one’s positionality is the contemporary innovation of feminism and cultural anthropology. But at this point I’d say Yoga interpreters are compelled to take it on as a new standard for engagement. Never again in either the soft or hard sciences (even labworkers must make full disclosure of their funding today) will any argument about anything be taken seriously if it is unaware of its positionality: its biases and limitations, its in-group or out-group status, its privilege. This self-reflexivity is not a postmodern fad. It is the very heart of intellectual honesty today.

Had these thoughts been clearer to me when working on my own remix of the Sutras, I would have incorporated them into my growing list of revisionist meanings for satya as well. Satya today can’t just mean telling the “truth” as you see it, but must include telling the deeper truth about what is at stake for you in speaking at all. No one can be fully transparent, meaning: we have an unconscious. And we must even be transparent about that. How can we hope to practice meditation if we ignore this?

[dropcap]L[/dropcap]eaving Vivekananda, White strolls through the fascinating territory of Islamic commentaries on Patanjali (143-158), and a mini-history of the term “Ishvara” as a site of sectarian scuffles that will never be resolved (172-181). I’ll let you all dive into those sections of this required-reading book, and head into the home stretch with a list of the wrecked myths bobbing in the wake of White’s cutter:

The Yoga Sutras has no stable textual tradition and no stable oral tradition. There is no lineage of continuous respect for the document itself within Indian philosophical and religious discourse. It’s highly unlikely that the Himalayan preserve harbors a cabal of Patanjalian rishis. Vivekananda had no more access to the Sutras than the non-Indian Orientalists did, and far less than we do. But it’s with White’s penultimate chapter, “The Strange Case of T. M. Krishnamacharya” that the grit of human desire and grandiosity starts to really scratch the patina of the modern Yoga myth.

White’s choice to round up the biography of a text with the biography of a man is both a formal delight and an existential hint. We get to see how the life of the MPY founder is cloaked in as much indeterminacy as his allegedly favourite book is. We get to see that the confabulations we foist onto texts are the mirrors of what we foist onto people. He begins with a generalized collation of the five authorized biographies — “one is tempted to say hagiographies” — White politely interjects (197), four of which are written by his son T.K.V. Desikachar and grandson Kausthub, with the other penned by another long-term student, A.G. Mohan. Then, with the same dharana he applied to his initial assumptions about the Yoga Sutras (in the Preface, White confesses that he expected the text to be supported by an unbroken line of gurus [xv]), he meticulously shreds the Desikachar stories to bits. Chronological and thematic inaccuracies between the four family bios, written between 1982 and 2005, reveal Krishnamacharya as the inscrutable hero of a family creating its own Purana. They are certainly not to blame, for in addition to the grandfather’s shifting oral remembrances through the years, he left his family with only eleven written pages (198) of autobiographical notes for them to weave the best story they could, and perhaps, unconsciously, the best story they imagined the world needed to hear about the genesis of MPY.

Amidst the chaos of disagreeing dates, impossible meetings with pandits, and surprisingly scant evidence that Krishnamacharya was very knowledgable or enamoured of the Sutras at all (201-202), a pattern begins to emerge as the dates of the biographies progress. As the details of the grandfather’s knowledge and exploits are enriched, so is the centrality of the Yoga Sutras to his story and teaching. The importance of the book blossoms alongside the grandeur of the man.

Why is this so? White alludes to (211-212) something that I can confirm from my own contact with people who were committed to learning with the Desikachar family. I know that through the 1990s, chanting the Sutras was becoming a curricular mainstay of their growing international school, proving effective for group adhesion and for projecting the image of distinguished study, a living link to the past, and a mythical echo of Vedic orality. I remember buying lifelong Desikachar student Sonia Nelson’s beautiful tutorial on CD in about 2005 — it had been published in 2002 — and I spent many happy hours chanting along, contemplating the verses, and attuning myself to the fiction that I was doing some very ancient and authentic thing.

I imagine I was feeling only the faintest shadow that T.K.V. and Kausthub felt as they listened to the old man. White quotes the elder Desikachar, from 1998:

When I chanted with my father, I was bound to him and his teachings in a unique fashion, just as in his chanting he was once again linked to his own teacher — and so it stretches back through many centuries of teachers… In our tradition, when we chant, we unite with God, who gave us the language, the practice of Yoga, and the wisdom of the Vedas. (214)

How couldn’t the son and grandson write a myth coherent with the old man’s vision? They are writing about listening to their father sing to them. This means that there are much more important things than facts being exchanged. In his endnotes to Coming Through Slaughter, a 1976 novel about the virtuoso jazz saxophonist Buddy Bolden, Michael Ondaatje writes:

There have been some date changes, some characters brought together, and some facts have been expanded or polished to suit the truth of fiction.

White winds down the myth-busting by trying fruitlessly to reconcile the various bits of lore regarding Krishnamacharya’s relationship to his “trans-Himalayan Yoga master” (198) Ramamohana Brahmacari. To start, the biographers say Brahmacari was in Tibet, but the grandfather himself puts him in Nepal. White then shows that in order for biographers to allow for this student-teacher relationship to flourish within any workable timeline, they had to propose a non-sensical walking-route for the grandfather that would have forced him to cover hundreds of miles over the “most rugged terrain in the world” (220) in order to squeeze out a few months of contact with the teacher over the claimed seven-year apprenticeship (221) in which he was instructed in 700 asanas. (208) And there are other unlikelihoods. In about four and a half pages, White calls into grave question the central prop of Krishnamacharya’s authority: the story of his access to “the last authentic yogi on the planet.” (212)

Throughout his analysis, White manages to avoid disparaging the integrity of the family biographers or diminishing Krishnamacharya’s profound contributions to MPY. But he does end his chapter, curiously, with a paragraph that begins: “Here it is useful to compare these reconstructions of Krishnmacharya’s life with that of Hariharananda Aranya, his elder by twenty years.” (223) White relates Aranya’s seemingly more stable biography, along with his publishing record, which shows granular familiarity with the Sutras. White ends his chapter on Krishnamacharya by praising Aranya for being an “authentic scholar-practitioner.” (224) This seems to be about the classiest way of calling bullshit a generous scholar could possibly manage.

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]fter this whole journey — textual, literal, and imagined — what is left of the Yoga Sutras and the men who have brokered them? I’m reminded of the opening to Lynn Hejinian’s book of poetry called My Life: “A pause, a rose, something on paper.” I’m reminded of the end of the Diamond Sutra. The Buddha says: “a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom and a dream.” In our homes we have dried flowers and old photographs. We have notes from lectures taken years ago about books written millennia ago. We have paperbacks on dusty shelves that may never be read again. We have impulses, intuitions, sparks of insight — all of them hurtling into the past — and we work with these.

Despite the politics, posturing, and showmanship, these dried leaves are all we have ever had, and working with them in the humility of uncertainty offers a peculiar grace. White’s account, for all of its swashbuckling, is also a quiet work of second-order religiosity. There is a certain austere nobility in pursuing the trace, in suspecting that something has gone missing forever, or that an ideal perhaps never existed. Creativity arises as the best response to the metaphysics of disenchantment.

It’s good to be relieved of the burden of thinking there’s something we’re not living up to. Amidst the Yoga scholarship of David White, Mark Singleton, Norman Sjoman, Elizabeth De Michelis, and so many others, there are no Yoga metanarratives left standing. Ultimately this means we also cannot doubt the value of our own participation in the ongoing creation of whatever Yoga is or will be. We might even use White’s work to reclaim the un-self-reflexive patterns of past commentators as permission to transparently create. This might free us to read Hatha literature through psychoanalysis and neuroscience, and the Gita through Marxist theory. Would these readings be substantially different from earlier misreadings or politicizations of the Sutras?

What is Yoga now? Not a single unified tradition that the contemporary global practitioner can point to, unless we want to continue to glorify fictions or prop up charismatics. Yoga is more like an approach or attitude, a periodic response to cultural and psychic stress. It’s an interdisciplinary, open-eyed response to whatever is given. Yoga takes the categories of ethics, breath, movement and contemplation and breaks down the barriers between them. It generalizes an efficient approach to creative and resilient living. “Yoga shows up” as my friend Michael Stone likes to say, “wherever the dominant paradigm is failing.”

How does it show up? Maybe like a red violin at a high-priced auction, a university rummage sale, or abandoned on the luggage carousel at the airport. You can tell any story you want about it, but it will remain silent until you play, cultivating sincerity and detachment as you practice for a long time, using whatever skill you bring. A sign that you’re really playing it might be that you don’t care who made it, or how old it is, but you’re aware of and grateful for the countless actions, random and purposeful, that brought it your way.


  • Great essay, Matthew. Good to hear that David is being as provocative and thought-provoking as ever. I agree with your conclusion that “we… cannot doubt the value of our own participation in the ongoing creation of whatever Yoga is or will be” but I disagree with your inference that because there is no continuous Pātañjalayogaśāstra (PYŚ) tradition there is no continuous yoga tradition. I haven’t read David’s book but I’d be very surprised if he says that. I think there is an ancient, predominantly oral yoga practice tradition that it is quite separate from Patañjali (which has always been the intellectuals’ yoga, not the yogis’ yoga).

    And I disagree with David’s claim (which I heard him make at last year’s Vienna conference) that Patañjali falls into obscurity in medieval and early modern India. I would argue quite the opposite. Yoga (by which here I mean the intellectual tradition that sees Patañjali as its source) only becomes orthodox in India in the 13th century, when it is first included in the six darśanas. The PYŚ is there in the background in most of the early (11th-15th century) haṭha texts and over the course of the 16th-19th centuries there is a succession of texts in which haṭha and pātañjala yogas are integrated (Jason Birch has done a fair bit of work on these). For material evidence, take a look at the second edition of Gharote and Bedekar’s Descriptive Catalogue of Yoga Manuscripts (2005 Lonavla: Kaivalyadhama): out of 2874 manuscripts listed, at least 450 are of the PYŚ and its commentaries, a huge number for any single Sanskrit work and far more than of any other text in the catalogue (the next two are Hemacandra’s Yogaśāstra and the Haṭhapradīpikā). The majority of the dated manuscripts of the PYŚ are from the 19th century. So much for a “Yoga desert”.

    It sounds as if what David has written on the modern reception and use (abuse?) of the PYŚ is a fascinating and important contribution to yoga studies, but be careful with his philological work, which I’ve addressed in a JRAS review article based on his Sinister Yogis: . The same article also draws attention to the living ancient traditions of yoga practice. If you or anyone else would like to read it but don’t have access, pm me and I’ll send you a draft.

    • Thank you so much Jim, for stepping forward so early to rebut what I cannot: on the scholarship I will defer, as I stated. If it helps, my understanding is that White is restricting his analysis to PYŚ proper, and I’m restricting my comments on “tradition” to the understanding of what a global MPY practitioner will have been hearing about over the past forty years. I’ll sift through the essay later today to see if I can make that restricting more firm, and then I’ll wait happily for your full analysis of this fascinating book — whenever you’ve finished up with that “Roots” project. Best!

    • Simply presenting the book’s stance on the manuscript issue.

      White asserts in Chapter 3 that through his own manuscript catalog research, “Out of a total of some twenty thousand manuscripts listed in these catalogs on Yoga, Nyaya-Vaisheshika, and Vedanta philosophy, a mere 260 were Yoga Sutra manuscripts (including commentaries), with only thirty-five dating before 1823.”

      • Thanks. The relevant pages are 74-79. White describes his quantitative analysis of

        manuscript catalogues from India, Europe, and North America. All in all, I perused over fifty catalogs and other related sources, with special focus on India’s eleven largest and most representative manuscript collections, as indicated in Philipp Andre Maas’s recent extensive survey of Yoga Sutra manuscript traditions.

    • I consulted the first (1989) edition of the Lonavla Descriptive Catalogue of Yoga Manuscripts in the preparation of my book, but did not include its data in my tabulation of YS manuscripts because Lonavla was an “outlier” in the sense of being an archive more or less entirely devoted to yoga. The totals I found in the 1989 edition nonetheless supported my contention that the Yoga Sutra manuscripts comprised a small minority of total manuscripts on yoga held in that collection. The totals were as follows: out of a total of 688 total root texts and commentaries on yoga, 21 comprised the YS and its commentaries. In 1989, the library held a total of 37 manuscripts of the root text of the YS, without commentaries: 7 of these predated 1824. There were 40 MSS of the YS with Vyāsa’s bhāṣya, of which six predated 1824.The total number of YS-related manuscripts–i.e. root text with or without commentaries (211) comprised approximately one tenth of this library’s total manuscript holdings.

      Jason Birch shared his findings with me on some of the recent (17th and 18th century) encyclopedic works on yoga that mention the eightfold practice and invoke Patanjali’s name. I have acknowledged this in the on-line notes to the book. These findings do not, contra Jim’s assertion, undermine the central arguments of the book.

      I have known Jim for over twenty years, going back to his grad student days when I helped him locate and reproduce manuscripts of the Khecari Vidya for his PhD dissertation. More recently, I invited him to contribute to the collective volume, Yoga in Practice, which I edited for Princeton University Press in 2011. Some of the Sanskrit in the piece he contributed, the Goraksa Sataka, was problematic, and I gave him some suggestions on how to translate some of its passages.

      Jim’s posting on this and other websites concerning my scholarship has been unprofessional and uncollegial. It is inappropriate to state that one disagrees with the thesis of a book one has not yet read. It is also inappropriate to invoke the philological aptitude of a colleague when the book one is commenting on has no discussions of Sanskrit philology, and to then direct readers of one’s posting to a review of another book on a different topic.

      I skyped Jim a few days back, and we had a good conversation. He agreed with me that this posting was inappropriate, and apologized for having done so. I accepted his apology and I am certain we will remain close.

  • Wonderfully written as always, Matthew. I’ve been thinking a lot about the honesty required to state one’s position and motivation on any topic, especially when teaching impressionable folks who are still sweating after and asana practice. Looking forward to reading his book.

  • Great essay! I’m totally out of my depth here and know nothing, not having studied Lacant and Derrida, yet inevitably fall under their influence. I find your views on post-structuralism, feminism and ‘positionality’ interesting, but it’s impossible to avoid having a ‘stain of perception’ of one kind or another. Isn’t one of the main tenants of yogic philosophy, and certainly Buddhist philosophy, to try to remove the stain of perception and see pure consciousness, Purusha, the Dharmakaya, or whatever you want to call it? Of course, you don’t believe in absolute truth, but many of these ancient traditions do. And then we need to say whether we’re speaking of absolute or relative truths.

    Also, I think of Patanjali (if he even existed) as a kind of ‘democrat,’ or liberal person who gathered together the most relevant and important yoga ideas of the time, resulting from centuries of oral tradition (and i do trust James Mallinson on this one), and represented them inclusively. We have Patanjali to blame for the whole concept of Ishwara suddenly being part of a largely atheistic practice (but he had to appease those Brahmins too!)

    And, wasn’t it either Sjoman or Singleton, in their writing about Mysore, who pointed out that the tradition or culture in India, around the time of Krishnamacharya, was one where people didn’t take credit and boast about their accomplishments, hence the reason why Krishnamacharya didn’t say he ‘invented’ Astanga, or wrote the Yoga Rahasya that was channeled to him in a trance in a mango grove. This lack of ego, by contrast with modern yogis today, was to credit someone else, like Ramamohana Brahmacari? Today, people have no problem taking credit even for things that don’t belong to them. Look at Bikram trying to patent yoga asana.

    Anyway, thoughtful essay and these thoughts arose while reading it. I can’t say that you’ve persuaded me to buy David Gordon White’s new book. I’m still deep into Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus.

    • Thank you, Heather… I’m not sure if you’re suggesting that tools such as feminism etc. are “obstructions” to apprehending a core nature to things, but if you are I’d argue just the opposite: that finer and finer tools of intellectual honesty strip down psychic defences to the bone.

      While I’ll leave White and Mallinson to duke out the philology, my own invention of whoever Patanjali was harmonizes with your own, and I try to describe as much in my own book.

      I do have a memory of Singleton I think describing the attribution convention somewhere. Perhaps another reader can refresh this for us. I agree that there might be a strong dose of deference involved in mythological outsourcing.

      But we can’t ignore the fact that the outsourcer remains the arbiter of the “revelation”, which is placed beyond critique. It is possible therefore for the mythographer-yogi to claim transmission to avoid the interrogation of their invention, while remaining in control of the fact of transmission. The mythographer doesn’t have to defend the content. He has to perform access.

  • To add just a brief coda here, if we harken back da capo we note that the true fruit of the practice was in the PLAYING of the violins…Just as it is in the reading and digesting of the Sutras — or in other yogic practices such as asana, the vast majority of which have been shown to be twentieth-century inventions…

  • What an exhilarating statement about this incredibly important book. Aside from my favorite line, “the wrecked myths bobbing in the wake of White’s cutter,” I’ll most remember your inspiring conclusion: “Ultimately this means we also cannot doubt the value of our own participation in the ongoing creation of whatever Yoga is or will be. We might even use White’s work to reclaim the un-self-reflexive patterns of past commentators as permission to transparently create.” Thank you!

  • I have been wondering what is the agenda behind the desire to relegate Krishnamacharya to the role of pure ‘modern postural yogi’?
    The fact that he has not left much writing apart from a few notes does not mean he did not know and teach plenty of stuff behind asana and there are other testimonies outside the direct family who confirm the centrality of the Yoga Sutras to his teachings as well as plenty more material.
    Just wondering… I really feel that we are not doing justice to the man, so I have my own agenda.

    • Thanks Chiara — it’s a good thing to clarify that the moniker Modern Postural Yoga (MPY) is being used currently by scholars to discuss the entire global yoga movement, centred primarily upon asana as its most visible component, that emerges from Krishnamacharya’s students. Using the term isn’t meant to negate its practitioners’ other skills, interests, or devotions, but to delineate it from other modern Yoga movements such as those found in Vivekananda’s centres, Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga, and even members of ISKON. So no one I know is denying the polymathic interests of the teacher, but rather closely studying whether or not the YS were as central to his early education as they became within the larger shadow he cast.

      • Thanks for the reply Matthew.

        Well I personally choose to believe that the Yoga Sutras were central to Krishnamacharya’s education, based not only on what Desikachar or Mohan may say.

        But perhaps what matters most really in the whole discussion is the difference between Patanjali’s yoga as yoke as opposed to yoga as union with whatever people feel they want to unite?
        Patanjali does not seem to want to unite much, he wants to collect and offer tools to still the mind.
        And if this is not our goal, if we like to be constantly swirled by vrttis then it is logic that we would not hold the text in such a high esteem or in a very accessible position on our book shelf!! 😉

  • This is an excellent review and I too enjoyed the book very much. I do wonder about the general conclusion at the end of your piece, such as

    “Yoga is more like an approach or attitude, a periodic response to cultural and psychic stress. It’s an interdisciplinary, open-eyed response to whatever is given.”

    Perhaps this is a route we may take once letting go of popular yogic romanticism, but “yoga” did mean something very specific to Patanjali and the YS, as the YS immediately indicates a particular dilemma regarding the mind-complex and a practice/process out of it. I think White is cautioning us against painting the YS and “Yoga” ( as opposed to “yoga”) with loose, broad strokes like Vivekananda and other modern figures have done, even if the work itself is laden with confusing elements. My point is that even if Yoga is “Not a tradition that the contemporary global practitioner can point to…”, this does not necessarily undercut the basic terminology and trajectory of Yoga, and make it open to all reformulations, as is common in Modern Yoga.

    • Thanks Jonathan — I just think that given the wild history of shifting readings offered by the commentaries from the beginning, along with the confusion regarding the Samkhya-Yoga interchange, along with several scholars debating the coherence of the fourth pada with the rest, along with the elusive nature of Patanjali’s identity or even existence, I think the statement “‘yoga’ did mean something very specific to Patanjali and the YS” is the red violin.

      It seems that the tangle of Samkhya-Yoga + possible Buddhist roots of the text mean that the “basic terminology and trajectory of Yoga” is not something we can define. This is not to say that I don’t have a feeling of this very premise (because when students ask me “What is Yoga?” I feel compelled to give a pragmatic and utilitarian answer), but my commitment is to recognize that however I feel it may well as eccentric as how everyone else has.

      • I wholeheartedly agree in recognizing this tumultuous sea of variables. Yet as no definitions or historical accounts will ever be watertight, we can still present the most reasonable claims with confidence, as you do with your students. Drowning is not the only option.

        I am reminded of how recently in the NYT a western Buddhist scholar said that karma and rebirth could be taken as a “useful metaphor.” One “could” do this, but a reasonable understanding of foundational Buddhism seems to get lost in the process. So it appears to me.

        Thanks for your response.

        • Thanks for your response as well. I just don’t feel like any of it is drowning, but like learning to swim in a stronger current. And here I think we see a pedagogical question emerge: is the epistemological discrimination required in scholarship equally helpful to the psychology of practice? I don’t know, but I also don’t know how to separate them. Best, M.

  • A great essay. Thanks Matt. I have placed an order and looking forward to the arrival of White’s book. The points made by White have always been the issues I have had with the ‘modern’ yoga phenomenon where everything gets linked to the Yoga Sutras. And of course its historicity among other issues.

    Thanks again for sharing this in the public domain.

  • I have read a lot of DGW’s books so far and they’ve been very thought provoking to me, as a former student in the Krishnamacharya “tradition”.

    I was a direct student of Kausthub Desikachar, and worked as an editor of his book, “Yoga of the Yogis”. Before that book was published I saw online that Elizabeth Kadetsky was doubting he authenticities of Krishnamacharya’s alleged interactions with the Viceroy. I actually contacted her by email and discussed this and she told me that such an interaction would have been public knowledge and could easily have been verified by checking the Viceroy’s diaries. I suggested to Kausthub that he check this but he said there wasn’t time as the book was to be published for some anniversary. The impractical nature of his travels to and encounters at Manarasovar really did strike me, however historical accuracy didn’t seem to be of much concern at that time.

    However it evolved, and whatever its source, I do feel that there is value in the systematic approach of the “Yoga Sutras” that doesn’t mean they should be thrown away. I find greater wisdom in the vajrayana texts these days, but I think the age old point of questioning everything and trusting nothing that isn’t in your own direct experience is a good starting point for all yogic enquiry.

  • for years i practiced TM and listened as they professed that sanskrit was THE sound of the universe. but i wondered why sanskrit, why the heck not native american indian song, or aborigines, etc….

    thanks for unpacking White’s book….can’t wait to read it.

  • Thank you for this wonderful book review/commentary. I always enjoy what you are saying, and how you are saying it. I laugh, I cry. I get nudged by the nods and the winks.

    I recall Gary Kraftsow referring to Krishnamacharya as “just an old man” (to me) when I was –delighting– in the the grandeur of the Lin-e-Age of this ‘authentic yoga tradition’. –This just-an-old-man comment shocked me at the time.
    ! Like any thrown cream pie might !

    I quickly came to understand that the point Kraftsow was making to me. About K. being “just an old man”. Kraftsow meant the immediate ‘guru’ in front of you today, is –not– the lineage. The lineage is gone like pixie dust. Wasn’t Kraftsow telling me that Center Stage is where the game is played. Out on the field in the hot sun.
    –and any looming backdrop of secret cave sauce is –folly ( not useful ).

    Today, at least, ‘teacher person’ in front of you –is the relevant ‘old man’ (that matters to the student of yoga).

    So choose a yoga teacher with care.
    Play on and continue on with the creative endeavor of seeing and feeling and acting in our short lives. Perhaps the useful prop of ‘yoga practice’ — if it feels right.

    Coconut cream, chocolate cream. Eyes wide open.
    Hold the pixie dust.

  • Unfashionable Nonsense? Modern Postural Yoga (MPY) is introduced on page 187 of A History Of Modern Yoga by Elizabeth de Michelis (Continuum Publishing) and even by her own lights the typology is unreliable it: “…fails to mirror the complexities of real-life situations and must therefore be understood as a heuristic device…types will and do overlap when observed in the field… it should also be stressed that the present typology does not include those Indian schools…active… in India and through the medium of local languages”. More notably still it fails completely to account for what I see as gender-imbalanced communities of practice such as yoga (so called) and Buddhism. I have sketched something down about this problem here: Any subsequent commentary like this then can only be appraised in relation to its premises, which are in this case unfounded or at best, needlessly speculative. “radical interpretations can serve to attract relatively inexperienced listeners or readers; and if the absurdity of this version is exposed, the author can always defend himself by claiming to have been misunderstood, and retreat to the innocuous interpretation” (Sokal A.). There is no “lacuna”, there is no “MPY”, and there are no “true” stories. There is no heuristic in Michelis’s typology because first and foremost it is not based on experience but on an acutely reduced conception of what yoga practice involves. Very well written though, a bit long but I enjoyed the ride. Such precise and yet inaccurate writing is the hallmark of Singletonists it seems. Thanks.

  • Sruti does not mean ‘revealed’ … It means ‘heard’. The former turns Hinduism into Christianity, with its one God revealing… Such a fundamental mistake in understanding the worldview and epistemology involved.

    Academic treatment is interesting, but it misses the point of the text, and turns it into an object to say things that are superfluous to the text. It becomes a way of avoiding what the text says. Just because people have handled it differently does not mean there is licence to make it say anything and everything, which is the in-credible suggestion made here. I find that does violence to the text. The text discloses a worldview, which is not refuted, but danced around. Disappointing.

    • I corrected “sruti” — thanks for that. “Academic treatment” is only interesting (and honest, and responsible) to the extent that it limits its scope to clearly stated premises. White’s book presents a heretofore unclear history of a book that now enjoys global attention. It doesn’t hold forth on its content, but on the interpretational dialectic through which its content has been accessed. The point is that between Sankara and Tiganuit and everyone in between, the text has been said to disclose many worldviews. Creative and engaged reading can’t ignore this history.

        • The point is that someone could argue such a thing, and maybe even wrangle the text to support it, and this process would be continuous with the interpretational history.

          • Well, all sorts of things can be said, but a debate sorts things out. That is how the tradition works. But this does not even extend that far, because these so called different worldviews do have a commonality, which I have outlined. No one can argue against that. I am happy to see someone try. So, what it means is that the academic treatment is a failure in this regard.

          • There is no monolithic “academic treatment”. There’s a stated thesis: the YS has an interpretational history. With this book, White doesn’t presume to debate the essential/eternal message of the YS.

      • Isvara literally means ‘own choice’… that is to say, in a worldview which holds that awareness/subjectivity is irreducible, one MUST end up here, when one examines their own subjectivity. And so it is, as attested by many, and disclosed by the methods of modern science.

        The translation of Ishvara is almost always ‘God’ with a capital G. We are very far in the modern world from what is being said by the voice known as the YS. In India, the personality which sees or hears is purposely kept out of the equation, that is part of the what the worldview is, what the matching epistemology is.

        I can see value in historicity, but also I am reminded of a true story (if memory serves, this was at the world council for religions meet, where Vivekananda also was)… A Thai forest monk asked the European philologist who had conducted a tour de force in presentation if she ever meditated. She said that no, she did not. The monk said ‘Madam, this is like having a hen, but collecting the turds rather than the eggs.’ So, I am not the first person to make such an observation.

        The voice says, ‘you are in unknowing. you do not know where you are, what all this is. Here, this is how you can find out.’

        The academic responds how? By not engaging the voice, but tries to deconstruct it instead, while never deconstructing his/her own worldview, which the voice asks be done.

        So, my voice here might be the lone one saying what it is saying. At least it provides a balance to what is otherwise not the focus of the text itself. And for including me here, I thank you very much Matthew, and wish to say that I admire some of your work very much, like WAWADIA, but the deconstruction should also include one’s own self as well, before any ‘other’ is deconstructed. Or, it just invites the same back.

        • Thanks for the kind words about me. Regarding the author of the book reviewed, you’ve now imagined that he doesn’t meditate or practice, with zero evidence. It’s a distraction from the actual content. A borderline ad hominem attack doesn’t address the stated goal of the project, which is to synthesize the available historical record, not to make pronouncements about the truth value of the YS. Plenty of other folks do that.

          I don’t know who is served by calling historiography shit-collecting, or by turning the word “academic” into a slur. Or by claiming White is “deconstructing” the voice of the YS. He’s doing no such thing. He’s analyzing the cultural narratives surrounding the work. This might feel desacralizing to some.

          • No, I actually assumed that he had a practise of some sort. The story still stands though, as there are many academics who do not, but who write and deconstruct. Vis a vis the author here, I have laid a challenge down about the worldview issue. Perhaps he will respond.

          • Well the fact is that this approach has hair splitted to the point of obscuring the fact that these so called different worldviews do have a commonality, that I have outlined. So, there is something which cannot be deconstructed away and must be left alone, but which has not been. And this does violence to the text. It is a factual error, which makes room for the later suggestion that since there is nothing solid there, it is all fair game. But while some things might be open to interpretation, it is not open to interpretation that awareness/subjectivity is primary, which is the focus of the text. So, the academic treatment has obscured the text, the core feature and message of the text.

          • At this point it’s best to clarify that this article is a review of a book you haven’t read. Maybe read the book before claiming “factual errors”, or challenging it further in areas it doesn’t presume to explore? If you want a commentary on the “actual” cosmology/epistemology/worldview of the YS, White’s book is not for you.

            If somebody wrote a technical history of the development of the internal combustion engine, it would be a very ill-informed or self-obsessed critic who not only didn’t read the book, but complained that it didn’t also explore the deep cultural meaning of the automobile, or the effect of driving speed on the nervous system.

      • In re-reading my comments, I notice that I am being unnecessarily antagonistic with you. I really wish I could speak with the author, actually debate him on the worldview. Apologies to you, dear Matthew.

          • Thank you for understanding. To your above comment, where I do not see a reply option, allow me to say, then it is your write up that is going too far in suggesting as much as it is. Not the author then, but you yourself, and obviously I under that one can go too far, and thank you for accepting my apology. Here is what you wrote, which I think goes too far, and I understand that is a matter of opinion. Thanks again, for what you do. I value it very much, and admire you for your fearlessness, which sometimes looks like recklessness to me. But still, nothing personal about that in my mind… a back and forth I hope to engage with you for some time to come. 🙂

            “What is Yoga now? Not a tradition that the contemporary global practitioner can point to, unless we want to continue to glorify fictions or prop up charismatics. Yoga is more like an approach or attitude, a periodic response to cultural and psychic stress. It’s an interdisciplinary, open-eyed response to whatever is given. Yoga takes the categories of ethics, breath, movement and contemplation and breaks down the barriers between them. It generalizes an efficient approach to creative and resilient living. “Yoga shows up” as my friend Michael Stone likes to say, “wherever the dominant paradigm is failing.”

          • Ha. Fearless and reckless are hard to tell apart for me, for sure.

            I do agree that that graf goes too far, and carries a certain cultural insensitivity. Today, just eight months later, I would be more qualified:

            “What is Yoga now? It’s not a tradition that the contemporary global practitioner has ready access to, despite numerous fictions and the claims of charismatics. For many secular seekers in today’s spiritual diaspora, Yoga is often understood as an approach or attitude, a perennial but changing response to cultural and psychic stress. It has come to be viewed as an interdisciplinary, open-eyed response to whatever is given. Modern practice takes the categories of ethics, breath, movement and contemplation and breaks down the barriers between them. It generalizes an efficient approach to creative and resilient living. “Yoga shows up” as the writer-practitioners Michael Stone likes to say, “wherever the dominant paradigm is failing.”

          • last comment to yours where you say ‘Ha”… now I am full of levity and wish you the same and the very best that the Yoga tradition has to offer. May it be, that we work together on some projects. All the best, my dear friend, Matthew!

  • Here is an example of ‘heard’, or ‘seen’ in this case.


    “Ramanujan credited his acumen to his family goddess, Mahalakshmi of Namakkal. He looked to her for inspiration in his work,[79] and claimed to dream of blood drops that symbolised her male consort, Narasimha, after which he would receive visions of scrolls of complex mathematical content unfolding before his eyes.[80] He often said, “An equation for me has no meaning, unless it represents a thought of God.”[81][82]”

    “Srinivasa Ramanujan FRS (pronunciation: Listeni/sriː.ni.vɑː.sə rɑː.mɑː.nʊ.dʒən/) (22 December 1887 – 26 April 1920) was an Indian mathematician and autodidact who, with almost no formal training in pure mathematics, made extraordinary contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions. Ramanujan initially developed his own mathematical research in isolation, which was quickly recognized by Indian mathematicians. When his skills became apparent to the wider mathematical community, centered in Europe at the time, he began a famous partnership with the English mathematician G. H. Hardy. He rediscovered previously known theorems in addition to producing new work. Ramanujan was said to be a natural genius, in the same league as mathematicians such as Euler and Gauss.[1]

    During his short life, Ramanujan independently compiled nearly 3900 results (mostly identities and equations).[2] Nearly all his claims have now been proven correct, although a small number of these results were actually false and some were already known.[3] He stated results that were both original and highly unconventional, such as the Ramanujan prime and the Ramanujan theta function, and these have inspired a vast amount of further research.[4] The Ramanujan Journal, an international publication, was launched to publish work in all areas of mathematics influenced by his work.[5]”

    • Hi Pankaj!
      I’d like to say that I’ve had this kind of dream several times. Sometimes the ‘text’ is scrolls of numbers. Sometimes the text is made of words. I come away with detailed information that is consumed in moments that would take lifetimes to digest. I wake up, and am none the wiser after a a few hours. But I can’t forget that I did know…..
      Oh well, I must be the ‘equivalent’ of a downs syndrome victim. Which, I regret. If only I too could be a lonely odd bizarre and male.

  • I haven’t read the book yet,but after reading your article Matthew, which is quite brilliantly written, I’m left wondering how helpful these kinds of ‘deconstructive’ narratives are. I’ve enjoyed reading the sutra for years and have found its teachings have helped me enormously to work through difficult relationships and negative patterns in my own behaviour. The teachings themselves work and does it matter who said what or when or how or why?

    Its a like a perfect clock that works and keeps great time and looks like a masterpiece and then some engineer comes along and takes the whole thing apart lays it out on the table and then says, well yeah.. its a great looking watch but actually some of these cogs were made in vietnam and the spring is actually a cheap imitation… and so on and so on.. The masterpiece gets reduced from its original intrinsic value… so i’m guess what I’m saying is that while its good to know.. does it matter? If the clock works we can still use it to keep the time.

    If you talk to senior practitioners about the sutras who’ve been walking its path for decades then the wisdom and beauty of the system shines through.

    Thanks for the review.. i wish i had time to read Gordon’s book properly.
    James, UK

  • This reads like the anguish of a high theory victim of Indology. The minor problem of getting facts wrong(frequent in Indology) and more basic conceptual errors which make the field completely clueless. Here is one critique

    But more important, is that the frame that you are trying to deconstruct is not a great one (and not shared by the classical authors who are quoted). Viewing the text as an analog of Bible, the revealed the word of God, and the natural historical questions which arise in checking that frame. Revelation in Christianity appears in a special, unique moment in history. In yoga and other such traditions, it should be accesible all the time. Do you try to deconstruct physical laws by tracing old texts or by doing experiments? You dont ask does practice lead to claims in the texts. The question of whether people in the Himalayas, instead of chanting the text, have actually experienced what is set out in the text. Whether there were yogis practicing meditation or whether they were use a specific text of yoga.

    There has been a similar bad attempt at deconstructing vipassana. Yet, people who actually practice intensely keep reporting experiencing the stages in older books. See Daniel Ingram’s book for instance.

    Some links explaining the background history of this kind of attempt at describing heathen traditions.

    But doing practice and finding out is a much better way to test the traditions instead of the roundabout way of the above of understanding the faults in Indology.

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