translating translating patanjali

some notes to help visualize an open loom, to weave new sutras

(this post is my apocrypha to the threads of yoga, which scott and I have published on the yoga 2.0 site)


What does it mean that the central text of modern yoga tells practitioners that it is good to be disgusted with their bodies (2:40)? What does it mean for us to hear and read that our personal ethics can remotely control the behaviour of others (2:35)? What does it mean for us to hear and read that the world of things exists only as a play for human consciousness (2:21), and that this world is materially destroyed for the person who enters a deep swoon (2:22)? What does it mean for us to hear and read that devotion to Isvara is the path to human healing (2:45)?

Yet these are modest oddities, compared to the occult claims. The Patanjalian tradition also tells us that deep meditation allows you to possess the body of another (3:38), levitate (3:39), fly through space (3:42), and develop a body made of diamonds (3:46). These powers are not metaphors, or the text would issue no caution that attaining them might distract you from more serious purposes (3:51). What does it mean that a pillar of yogic thought for the modern world is littered with claims we can only digest and make useful with the chutney of tranhistorical context and postmodern irony?

To me it clearly means that yoga philosophy becomes unstable through time. Translation that lacks transparency makes this instability anxious, rather than creative. As it is with any relationship.

I think it also means that modern yoga culture carries the burden of archaic religious sentiment, and that everyone who translates and communicates this text without critique is in danger of becoming an apologist for bodily asceticism, mind control of others, disregard if not outright hatred of the material world, superhero fantasies, and alienating hierarchies of metaphysical power. While these views have deep anthropological roots, they are of little use today. It falls to all of us who value the general progressive ethos of modern yoga to ask: “What exactly are we reading and listening to, and why are we not actively rewriting and retelling it? Do we want to create a functional philosophical model that can work effectively with incoming data, or will we settle for contradictory sentiments frozen in ancient fears and wishes?”


The aphorisms attributed to the mythic Patanjali seem to have dominated the metaphysical interests of modern yoga for three reasons. One is conscious, but the other two serve unconscious strategies that hamper the evolution of this art that we love.

Firstly, we are genuinely enthralled by the elegant (if inconsistent) Patanjalian model of consciousness. We appreciate the exacting analysis of mental functions, and the idea that they can be systematically improved. It is a true wonder to us that a group of Axial age contemplatives, without the benefits of deconstruction and modern neuroscience, were able to draw a clear distinction between the human faculties of raw awareness and meaning-projection, and how these become spontaneously confused in momentary experience. They cracked an important nut that predicted many revelations, up to the contemporary quandary of left and right-brain dynamism, and how best to walk the tightrope between intuitive/sensory input and cognitive impulses.

However, these discoveries are not unique to the speakers of Patanjali. The Jains make similar distinctions, and the Buddhists devote entire lineages to the finer points. Plato is on board as well, and there are arguably many others, because the wonders and problems of modern consciousness become apparent to humanity as soon as it is born, which, if we are to believe Julian Jaynes, is only a few millennia prior to our Axial heroes. It is fair to say that for as long as we have been self-aware, we have tangled with the mess of self-awareness, the mystery of internality, and the disjunctions between being and thinking. We’re attracted to the Patanjalian system because it vigourously wrestles in this pit.

Our second attraction to the Patanjalian echo is less conscious: the strong pull on our vestigial theism and puritanism. The story of Vivekananda illustrates: a self-proclaimed tantric who spat at the dinner tables of his Boston hosts, perturbed by their anality. Having learned Patanjali from his mystic-guru Ramakrishna, he clearly decided that its Platonic dualism, petitions to the godhead, ascetic mood, and sexual prudishness was an ideal vehicle for the popularization of yoga as a cultural movement in late Victorian culture. With Raja Yoga, a publishing legend – and a cultural phenom – gathered steam.

Modern practitioners who retain their genetic Christianity may well be subconsciously drawn to key threads of the Patanjalian argument:

  • the soul is entrapped in matter,
  • consciousness is fundamentally flawed,
  • the body should be viewed with disgust,
  • sex distracts from metaphysical joy,
  • there are saviours who can intercede,
  • and God is beyond all things, but leaves signs for you to follow towards the exit door.

In our age, Patanjali throws latter-day theists a life-line. The yoga sutras leaves unconscious metaphysics intact while seeming to examine the problem of consciousness rationally.

There is a critical difference between approaching the consciousness dilemmas raised by the sutras from the perspective of latter-day theism versus that of material rationalism. The latter-day theist views consciousness as an obstacle to the natural and final revelation of Truth and communion with God. The material rationalist views consciousness as a central character in an endless and fascinating story. The former view has decided what it is looking for, and will reject all language and evidence that does not support its prejudice. The latter view refuses to invest in expectations, and remains open, hopefully, to the best emerging outcome.

The Patanjalian echo calls out a third attraction, even less conscious than the second: the power of obfuscation. If the text were more transparent, it would be more free and understandable to all, reducing the need for translators, interpreters, enlightened teachers, and other agents of authority. In other words, a more open-source text would force each reader and hearer to be personally responsible for their opinions. Each reader and hearer would have to grow up by realizing that both parental and guru answers were once the best available, but not necessarily the best answers possible now.

If you didn’t depend upon an ascended interpreter/expert to tell you what to think, you would accept that yoga is just like everything else you encounter. You don’t know what it is. You see some people doing one thing while others do something else. You hear one teacher deny the substantiality of the world, and another who affirms its reality. You find books and commentaries, and few of them agree. But there are some you meet who offer helpful clues based upon their experience. Your learning progresses as you compare these clues against your own experience. You keep meeting people who offer slivers of new insight in exchange for your own. But never do you actually meet a person who has the entire code, for they no more exist than a physicist who knows it all. You can be sure that if someone did, they would be as well-known and as peer-reviewed as Einstein. But even Einstein only had a piece of the puzzle. That’s the way it goes. That’s why we need each other, forever.

With obfuscation, the metaphysics of the second attraction (vestigial religiosity) socially materialize into bureaucracies of interpretative power. This is the playground of spiritual gurus and theologians in the academy. Whatever they have to offer can only be purchased with faith and devotion. This can satisfy deep-seated needs for both taking and surrendering power.

All that is needed for a religion to form is a book that few can read, a priestly class to read it, and a general need for faith that reaches out of prehistory and childhood to challenge the angst of presence. Religion may not be what we want in modern yoga. But it’s certainly there.


The fantasy of a direct translation proposes a 1:1 correspondence between parent and child, in which each word, phrase, sense, and idiom finds its exact correlate in the new media. This is what translators desire with their wish to remain faithful to a text. The text as parent: the translation as dutiful child. But there is always the problem of individuation, which reveals itself through unconscious agendas.

Agendas are as unavoidable as natal constitution, homeland, birth language and childhood circumstance. To believe that a translation is without agenda is a fantasy of the erasure of history and context, a fantasy of direct contact with a vanished source. It is the fantasy of channeling. It conceals a wish to sit at the foot of sage you can never meet in the flesh, and hear directly words of wisdom in a language you only imagine you can comprehend.

I do not hold the wish of an agenda-free translation. My agenda bends towards the common good, as broadly as I can feel it: ecology, bodily respect, material re-enchantment, and empathy. If Patanjali will speak to me, it will be because like all other interpreters I have placed words in his mouth. I will choose those words very carefully.


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