Whose Sutras? Bridging the Divide of Scholar & Practitioner

Although Pandit Rajmani Tigunait’s The Secret of the Yoga Sutra and David Gordon White’s The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography could not be more different in terms of core message and approach, both share the same underlying problem. Essentially, this is that each in its own way replicates the dominant paradigm that divides our studies of the Yoga Sutra (YS) between 1) practitioner-oriented studies that are reverentially devoted to explicating it as a timeless truth, and 2) narrowly empiricist academic studies that are utterly dismissive of the concerns and experiences of practitioners. This split between lived practice and scholarly inquiry is unfortunate in that it narrows the scope of ideas and information in ways that impoverish both.

To be sure, both books make notable contributions to their respective fields. Tigunait, the Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute, writes as a lineage holder in the Sri Vidya tradition. The Secret of the Yoga Sutra offers a user-friendly entry into the complexities what I found to be an essentially religious approach to the text. White, a chaired Professor of Religious Studies at the UCSB, writes as a “just the facts, ma’am” scholar who’s openly skeptical of contemporary yoga culture. The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography evidences a prodigious amount of archival research, which attempts to trace the most important references to the work made during the past 1,600+ years.

Due to the singular lens each book uses to look at the YS, however, I found them more interesting considered in tandem, rather than independently. It’s ironic that although the Secretand Biography approach their shared subject matter from polar opposite perspectives, they actually inform each other reasonably well. For example, Tigunait explains that he’s part of a tradition that interprets the YS using a combination of yogic, Tantric, and Vedantic philosophies. This would have struck me as strangely arbitrary, except that I knew from reading White that this sort of syncretism has, in fact, represented a well-established tradition in India since at least the 16th century.

That said, there’s no question that White’s Biography is designed to debunk precisely the sort of claims to timeless interpretative authority that Tigunait’s Secret explicitly makes. Consequently, despite the fact that they complement each other in some ways, one might ultimately feel that it’s necessary to choose one approach and reject the other, given that it’s logically impossible to embrace both perspectives at the same time. However, I don’t believe this to be true. Other alternatives can be created. Personally, I’d like to see some sort of new synthesis between them, one which takes the experiences of practitioners seriously, but that also contextualizes them in the broader perspective that a cultural history of the YS provides.


Before going into a more detailed discussion of each book, I’d like to provide a bit of background regarding where I’m coming from in reading them. On the whole, it’s always been true that discussions of the Yoga Sutra in contemporary yoga culture generate a certain sense of inner conflict for me. On the one hand, I’m very much drawn to the project of engaging with this ancient, cryptic, compelling, and mysterious text. On the other hand, I’m really turned off by the all-too-common tendency to want to put it into some neat-and-simple conceptual box.

This reaction is rooted in my dual background as a yoga practitioner and social scientist. Like many practitioners, I’m enthralled by the fact that some parts of the YS feel highly resonant with my personal experience of yoga. Unlike most, however, I’m equally fascinated by the fact that other parts of the text feel utterly foreign, and don’t resonate at all.

I believe that any work that has spoken to so many so deeply across the centuries must have something unusually compelling about it. As a social scientist, hwoever, I also assume that any claim to know its true meaning as universally understood by adepts across the centuries is necessarily wrong. Whether it’s the Yoga Sutra, Bhagavad Gita, Pali Canon, Bible, or even the U.S. Constitution, there are always multiple interpretations of the essential meaning of iconic texts. And, although certain interpretations will emerge as more compelling than others at any given time, such meanings will also always change over the course of history.

Given this perspective, I’m interested in the interplay between the enduring resonance of the YS and the constellation of culturally specific interpretations that have surrounded it historically. I’m looking for insight into what has made it so enduring, as well as how it’s been understood in radically different ways in different places and times.

Yet, our tendency today is to reject such complexity in favor of readings that claim to explain the entire work as a split package deal: either as an unchanging guide to spiritual practice, or as a transient cultural artifact. Hence my frustration with both the Secret and Biography: like most contemporary discussions of the YS, the core questions I have about it are never asked, let alone investigated.

The Biography: 1

Be that as it may, I do appreciate the prodigious research effort that obviously went into White’s “biography.” At 236 pages (not including notes and index), The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography is a sprawling, ambitious work, providing detailed discussions of the various ways in which the YS has been interpreted 1) in ancient, medieval, colonial, and post-colonial India; 2) among influential Western individuals and movements the British Orientialists, German Romantics, and Theosophists; and 3) by key commentators in the Muslim world. On top of this, While provides detailed discussions of the significance of Swami Vivekananda and Sri T. Krishnamacharya in the modern “revival” of the YS, as well as extensive discussions of many other significant Eastern and Western writers, philosophers, and spiritual teachers.

Unfortunately, the high level of detail devoted to sketching out this sweeping history is not tightly organized around a set of simpler thematic points or embedded into a clear narrative structure. This makes it something of a challenge to pick out precisely what the central points of White’s “biographical” story are. By my reading, however, the main point is to prove that the understanding of the YS as a timeless guide to yoga philosophy and practice that’s widely taken-for-granted among practitioners today is factually wrong. The most important reasons for this include:

  • Philosophical inconsistency. White emphasizes that Patanjali’s original understanding of yogic philosophy was eclipsed by very different, Vedanta-based interpretations by at least the 16th century. “In a complete reversal of Patanjali’s and Vyasa’s original position,” he explains, “the Ishvara of the Yoga Sutra had come to be equated with the Krishna of the Bhagavad Gita” (49-50).
  • Historical discontinuity. Although the YS “enjoyed the status of a classic” in India during the 7th-12th centuries, it subsequently fell into obscurity (235). Ironically, this only changed when it was “rediscovered” by British Orientalists in the early 1800s. Subsequently, the YS was widely popularized by Vivekananda – who, in turn, further “severed it from its original cultural and historical context” – beginning in the late 19th century (16, 124).

Weaving various iterations of these claims through many, much more particular historical discussions, the Biography appears dedicated to debunking the “ongoing fetishization of theYoga Sutra by the current yoga subculture,” which is more than happy to have it be “venerated without being understood” (215).

I believe that White is right that such “fetishization” exists, and to some extent share his impatience with it. That said, I had major problems with the way that he attempted to address this issue in his book. First, White never makes any serious attempt to analyze contemporary yoga culture. As a result, it’s easy for him to set up a straw man argument about it: that is, that there’s widespread belief that the YS has provided an unchanging guide to yoga theory and practice from the 5th-21st centuries that needs to be debunked.

However, it’s questionable to what extent contemporary practitioners are really invested in this as a serious historical narrative. In my experience, most wouldn’t care if it were pointed out that, in fact, the YS has been interpreted in different ways at different times. Because really, what they care about is simply that it’s a meaningful text for them now. Plus, to the extent that they believe in the tradition of Parampara, the “problem” of historical discontinuity is solved by investing interpretative authority in a series of designated lineage holders (which is, again, precisely the position that Tigunait’s Secret takes).

Conversely, from a social science perspective, no cultural historian would ever take the claim that the meaning of some iconic text has held constant across the centuries seriously. It’s simply too self-evidently wrong to be worth debunking. As a result, there’s a profound mismatch between White’s central argument, which is organized around a non-academic debunking project, and his research method, which is basically an enormous amount of fine-grained archival research. The result is that we have neither a nuanced discussion of how the YS figures into yoga culture today, nor a compelling analysis of what to make of all of the historical data White has so assiduously assembled.

The Biography: 2

To make matters worse, the vast array of historical data White presents doesn’t consistently fit his key claims of philosophical inconsistency and historical discontinuity. For example, as noted above, White claims that the Vedantic reading of the YS “completely reversed” Patanjali’s original understanding of Ishvara (50). Later, however, White writes that if “Patanjali was a practitioner of Yoga and a devotee of a personal god like Krishna, he may well have been thinking of ‘devotional to God’ when he employed the term ishvara-pranidhana” (180). Finally, he concludes that “it is unlikely that there will ever be a final word on what Patanjali meant by ishvara-pranidhana” (181).

Needless to say, this is a major problem given that much of the earlier part of the book were devoted to demonstrating that “virtually every modern-day yoga guru beginning with Swami Vivekananda” has “fundamentally misconstrued…the heart of Patanjali’s system.” Again, how did they “fundamentally misconstrue” it? By interpreting Ishvara as “the universal Self of Vedanta,” as opposed “an object of meditation” in service of “the ultimate goal of the isolation of the individual person from universal Matter” in line with the original philosophies of Yoga and Samkhya (47-48). White’s argument undercuts itself: It’s a logical contradiction to state that we can’t know whether Patanjali was “a devotee of a personal God” and that “virtually every modern-day yoga guru…fundamentally misconstrued” his understanding of Ishvara. Both statements can’t be true at the same time. Yet, they are presented as such without qualification or commentary.

There are similar problems with White’s claim of historical discontinuity. As noted above, White reports that the YS only “enjoyed the status of a classic” during the 7th-12th centuries (235). Earlier, however, he states that its “glory days” lasted up through the 16th century (44). Sixty pages after that, he qualifies this statement by adding that “yoga philosophy had been effectively dropped from the traditional north Indian brahmanic curriculum by no later than the 16th century” (100, emphasis added). Ten pages later, he notes that “there was a Yoga revival” innorthwest India during the 17th-18th centuries (111). Yet, the second to last page of the book emphasizes that the YS “improbably, miraculously” recovered “the status of a classic” after “a hiatus of nearly a millennium”! (235). Again, while this claim doesn’t logically correspond to White’s own data, it’s nonetheless stated boldly, without additional clarification.

The Secret

Pandit Rajmani Tigunait’s The Secret of the Yoga Sutra is the first volume in a planned series of commentaries in the YS. It focuses on the first chapter of the YS, the Samadi Pada. Written by a self-described lineage holder in the Sri Vidya tradition, it offers an exceptionally thorough exposition of how to read the YS from this particular, essentially religious perspective. Although not a position that I personally find compelling, Tigunait does an excellent job at systematically building what gradually emerges as a complex doctrinal system with steadily ascending levels of detail and complexity. His clear exposition of a wide array of complex concepts enabled me to apprehend the internal logic of his position reasonably well – a notable feat, given the difficulty of many of the ideas discussed.

The Secret’s method of devoting multiple pages of commentary to each Sutra allows Tigunait to dig deeper into the substratum of beliefs that support his interpretation of text. For example, Sutra 1:26, which is translated as “He is the one who has been the preceptor of all previous teachers for He is not limited by time,” is followed by four pages of commentary (which represents about the average length for each verse). Here, he explains many points that seemingly go far beyond the statement at hand. These include:

  • the human tendency to put spiritual authorities on pedestals rather than “to turn to the One who is eternal and immortal – Ishvara”;
  • what happens after death (“buried in the deep tomb of non-being, we are virtually non-existent”); and
  • the process through which we are “born again” (“The light of the Omniscient Being guides us to the right place and the right time to begin our life”).

And this is only a highly simplified snippet of the full discussion, which also includes explanations of the interplay of Prakriti and Purusha, the multiple dimensions of Ishvara, and the nature of the gradual process of becoming “free from our karmic bonds and the ignorance that sustains them” (128-132).

The deeper I got into the Secret, the more it struck me as an essentially (if non-traditionally) religious work. It should be noted, however, that this interpretation in no way comports with Tigunait’s intent. On the contrary, he emphasizes that “God and liberation as described by Patanjali are quite different from God and liberation as described by most institutional religions”:

Patanjali’s God takes away all our fears, for it is an exalted state of consciousness – pure, pristine, all-pervading, and eternal. God is our inner guide, the source of inspiration. Even the prospect of experiencing this divine presence fills our mind with indescribable peace. The God of religion, on the other hand, evokes fear, and the religious concept of heaven kindles greed. Fear and greed fuel inner unrest; they agitate the mind and can never be the ground for peace . . . The purpose of Yoga sadhana is to cultivate this inwardly flowing, peaceful mind (67).

Uncharitably, one might say that such statements amount to the same “my religion is true and yours isn’t” perspective that anyone who’s been exposed to any sort of exclusivist religious tradition will be familiar with. More generously, one could say that it invokes the difference between spiritual experience that’s rooted in a yogic process of progressively quieting the mind and deepening awareness, as opposed to internalizing slews of pre-determined religious doctrine. However, the Secret itself is brimming with detailed answers to key questions that religions traditionally address: the nature of God, what happens after we die, etc. As such, it is difficult to read it as anything other than an essentially religious work.

While this may (ironically) sound blasphemous to some, I personally don’t have a problem with it. I believe in respecting different religious traditions, provided they are being interpreted and practiced in ways that generate more positivity than negativity in the world. Given that many of the most dedicated, skilled, and service-oriented yoga teachers I know have some affiliation with the Himalayan Institute, it seems that to the extent that the faith that informs the Secret has impacted their practice, it’s been in exceptionally positive ways. Consequently, although characterizing the interpretation of the YS provided by the Secret as “religious” rejects its own self-understanding, it doesn’t carry the same negative connotations that Tigunait’s own use of the term would imply.


Ostensibly, White’s Biography aims to debunk precisely the sort of “timeless” interpretation of the YS that Tigunait’s Secret claims to offer. On closer reading, however, it actually provides evidence that to the extent that there has been a tradition of YS interpretation, it has been one of reading the text through whatever mix of philosophical, religious, and cultural influences conjoin to form a compelling narrative at the time. Of course, to a cultural historian, this isn’t the least surprising: one wouldn’t expect the popular understanding of any such iconic text to stand without change across time and space.

By the same token, however, the Biography illustrates how seemingly arbitrary and erratic this ongoing process of reinterpretation can be. It shows both how much such “timeless” meanings are changed, and how closely these changes track with the dominant patterns of power, culture, and belief of their time. If unsurprising from an historical perspective, having so much such evidence of this collected in one work offers an important corrective to contemporary yoga practitioners accustomed to taking authoritative pronouncements on the “timeless” meaning of the YS at face value.

Ideally, knowing more about the constellation of meanings that has historically surrounded the YS can enable us to see more clearly how our own cultural biases may be informing how we read and interpret it today. For practitioners, having such heightened cultural self-awareness may be helpful in the process of cultural deconditioning that is part of the historic yoga tradition. More immediately, it may also enable us to orient ourselves better in the often confused and confusing context of contemporary yoga culture.

Conversely, yoga scholarship would benefit from taking the experiences of practitioners more seriously. Whether investigated using the framework of neuroscience, mind-body integration, or comparative mysticism, it’s evident that Patanjali’s exploration of yoga as “the stilling of the changing states of the mind” is profoundly important. It’s possible to recognize both that theYoga Sutra has been interpreted in radically different ways in different times and places, and that it’s an exceptionally compelling and important work. Although the core of what makes it so can’t be definitively answered by scholarship (or, for that matter, by anything else), investigating the question nonetheless remains a powerful means of deepening human knowledge.

This piece originally appeared on Carol Horton's blog at carolhortonphd.com.

Carol Horton, Ph.D., is author of Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body, and co-editor of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice. Currently, she is editing a book on Best Practices for Yoga for Veterans. Carol serves on the Board of the Yoga Service Council, and teaches yoga at Chaturanga Holistic Fitness in Chicago. An ex-political science professor, Carol holds a doctorate from the University of Chicago, is the author of Race and the Making of American Liberalism, and has written numerous research reports for leading foundations, nonprofits, and public agencies on issues affecting low-income children and families.

Carol Horton, Ph.D., is author of Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body, and co-editor of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice. Currently, she is editing a book on Best Practices for Yoga for Veterans. Carol serves on the Board of the Yoga Service Council, and teaches yoga at Chaturanga Holistic Fitness in Chicago. An ex-political science professor, Carol holds a doctorate from the University of Chicago, is the author of Race and the Making of American Liberalism, and has written numerous research reports for leading foundations, nonprofits, and public agencies on issues affecting low-income children and families.

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