- The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography by David Gordon White
David Gordon White’s The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography claims to be a biographical account of the life of the Yoga Sūtra. But it is instead an account of what people across times and continents have thought about the Yoga Sūtra. For the Lives of Great Religious Books series that White is contributing to with this volume, there is no difference: your life and what people thought about you amount to the same thing. For those of us who believe in the possibility of error — that people’s opinions about you can be mistaken — there is a strong line to be drawn between one’s life and [End Page 1043] secondary opinion. In the case of texts, if secondary opinion can be mistaken, we should certainly want to draw a distinction between the text and what people thought about it. Historians of philosophy (philosophers with an interest in engaging with historical figures and texts) take this approach. If you are interested in what other people think about the Yoga Sūtra, then this is your book. Moreover, if you are naive enough to believe that the account of the Yoga Sūtra that you received from your guru in the wider yoga community is the end result of a faithful, historical process leading back to the historical Patañjali himself, you are in trouble. Call this the historical thesis. I shall also call it “Q” for the sake of a Modus Tollens later on. White claims that he no longer holds Q (p. xv). As someone who believes in the possibility of error of secondary opinion, I find it incredible that White ever believed Q.
The book is geared toward showing Q false. White would rather that we view the Yoga Sūtra as a “come back classic” — that though historically neglected, it has now been translated into over forty languages the world over (p. xvi). To this end, White is “devoted to tracing the fractured history of these modern appropriations and contestations, which have carried the Yoga Sūtra’s legacy across the oceans and over the snowy peaks of the Himalayan Shangri-la” (p. 17). Indeed, the chapters in the first half of the book do provide such an account: starting out first with the reception of the Yoga Sūtra within the history of Indian philosophy (chapter 2), followed by the Western discovery of the Yoga Sūtra (chapter 3), the surprising interest Hegel showed in the text and the unsurprising inclination of Hegel to claim himself an expert on the topic (chapter 4), the creative reordering and representation of the Yoga Sūtra by the Indian Indologist Rajendralal Mitra (chapter 5), the uptake of the Yoga Sūtra by the Theosophical Society (chapter 6), the role of Swami Vivekananda in the “mainstreaming” of the Yoga Sūtra (chapter 7), and finally the Yoga Sūtra in the Muslim world (chapter 8).
In the second half, White returns to South Asia, focusing on the seriousness with which the Yoga Sūtra was received by medieval Indian thinkers (chapter 9), the topic of Īśvara (the Lord) as it is dealt with variously by translations and interpretations (chapter 10), the place of the Yoga Sūtra in early twentieth-century scholarship (chapter 11), and the (lack of) evidence in support of the claim that Krishnamacarya is last in an ancient tradition of Yoga Sūtra transmission stretching back to Patañjali himself (chapter 12).
The final chapter (13) outlines recent commentarial spats on the Yoga Sūtra. It touches upon scholarly observations that the language of the Yoga Sūtra is more Buddhist than “Hindu.” The assumption here seems to be that something could not be both Buddhist and Hindu (so much for karma). Finally, this chapter deals with contemporary commentarial controversies on the Yoga Sūtra between Indologists. Far from faulting...