Sunday, 16 October 2016

Patanjali’s Epistemology and Metaphysics

Patanjali has made extensive commentary on metaphysics (in the Yoga-Sutras), and on epistemology (in the Mahabhashya).

His ideas are founded on the Sankhya system, which is overwhelmingly atheistic. But Patanjali was a theist. He incorporated mysticism into the Sankhya system to develop a Yoga system of divine order of the universe.

Some accounts suggest that Patanjali may have lived in the 4th century BCE, but there are other accounts that place him between the 4th and 6th century BCE.

The Metaphysics of the Yoga-Sutras

Like the Sankhya system, Patanjali’s yoga system proposes that the universe consists of two entities: Prakriti (nature), and Purusa (spirit). Patanjali states that while it is possible to keep the undesirable elements out of the entanglement between spirit and matter, and have some pleasurable things in the material world, life is mostly painful. The spirits are infinite in number and a being can earn salvation only through individual effort.

Patanjali believed in body-soul dichotomy. He preached that soul must not be identified with the body, or the senses, the mind, and even the ego and the intelligence principle. In order to gain an insight into the soul, man must peer through the veil of materiality.

The objective of the yoga system is to free the spirit or the Purusa, from the bondage of the matter or Prakriti. To achieve such an outcome the individual must follow the progressive system of self-realization based on the knowledge of Yoga.

The system of yoga that has been described in the Yoga-Sutras is Raja Yoga. As “Raja” means royal, it is generally believed that Patanjali wanted to develop a system that was fit for the kings. But the term “Raja” can be a metaphor for anyone, even a commoner, who desires to gain a deeper understanding of the world he lives in, and is courageous and adventurous. Therefore it is also possible that Raja Yoga symbolizes a royal road to salvation.

The bondage that binds spirit with matter does not lie outside the individual; it lies inside us. Patanjali preaches that the seekers of salvation must cultivate a spirit of detachment; as long as they remain affectionate towards the seen or revealed objects, they will remain distracted and their quest for freedom will remain unfulfilled.

The Yoga-Sutras describe a series of meditations that are designed to facilitate the attainment of bliss. The focus of the yoga exercises is on aiding the development of a spiritual man, one who is set free from all entanglements with material nature.

Patanjali has preached about the Ashtanga or eight steps through which bliss can be attained. The eight steps are:


1. Yama or restraint
2. Niyama or asceticism
3. Asana or posture
4. Pranayama or breath control
5. Pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses
6. Dharana or concentration
7. Dhyana or meditation
8. Samadhi or the act of achieving oneness with the divine

The Yoga Sutras recognize the existence of extra-sensory perception and super-conscious experiences. Various methods that can be employed for developing extraordinary and extra-sensory powers have been described in the text.

The Epistemology of Mahabhashya

Patanjali’s Mahabhashya is an important work of Sanskrit grammar. Some accounts suggest that Panini, the author of Astadhyayi, was a brother of Patanjali, and that the Mahabhashya was written to support the grammatical theory that has been proposed in the Astadhyayi.

The focus of Mahabhashya is on the philosophy of language—it seeks to unravel the mysticism that undermines the phenomena of conversation. The text gives a rather spiritualistic look to the way the language is written and spoken.

Patanjali believed that there is mysticism in the phenomenon of speech. He believed that the utterance of a sound is a vivid materialization of consciousness, and that the study of grammar is of direct consequence to a man who seeks spiritual inspiration.

The Mahabhasya portends the birth of a kind of sadhana or worship, in which union with Brahman or salvation can be obtained through knowledge of the sabda, or words. Patanjali takes note of two kinds of words – nitya or eternal, and karya or created. By nitya, he refers to things that are associated with the supreme Brahman or the Absolute. He has endeavoured to draw our attention to the eternal character of the sabda or words.

Patanjali believed that the sabda or the words are not a lifeless mechanism invented by man—their meaning goes much deeper. He viewed words as the manifestation of divinity which makes its presence felt through the act of utterance. Like divinity, the sabda are eternal; they transcend all limitations of time and space.

He preached that one who earns the capacity of using words properly is allowed to enjoy divine bliss in the next life. Therefore a comprehensive knowledge of grammar is the key to the attainment of salvation. The divine light signs upon the man who understands the secret relationship between the denoted object and the denoting word.

He told his followers to get out of the delusion that words are mere sounds. The words are imbued with subtle and intellectual form. The internal source from which words evolve is always calm, serene, eternal, and imperishable. Great deal of sadhana or mental exertion is required have a glimpse of speech at its purest form.

Patanjali believed that dharma or religious duty consists of the practice of applying words in accordance to the rules of grammar. He concedes that corrupt or incorrectly derived words may gain prominence in society, but religious merit can only be acquired thorough perfection in grammar and the consistent usage of rightly derived words.

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