Who Was Patanjali?


By Richard Rosen  |  

Take enough yoga classes and you’ll eventually hear one of your teachers quote from the Yoga Sutra, which is the guidebook of classical, or raja (royal), yoga. Written at least 1,700 years ago, it’s made up of 195 aphorisms (sutras), or words of wisdom. But do you know anything about Patanjali, the person who supposedly compiled these verses?

The truth is that nobody really knows much—not even exactly when the sage lived. Some practitioners believe he lived around the second century BCE and also wrote significant works on Ayurveda (the ancient Indian system of medicine) and Sanskrit grammar, making him something of a Renaissance man. But based on their analyses of the language and the teaching of the sutras, modern scholars place Patanjali in the second or third century CE and ascribe the medical essays and grammar to various other Patanjalis.

Like many tales about the world’s spiritual heroes, the story of Patanjali’s birth has assumed mythic dimensions. One version relates that in order to teach yoga on earth, he fell from heaven in the form of a little snake, into the upturned plans (a gesture known as anjali) of his virgin mother, Gonika, herself a powerful yogini. Here he’s regarded as an incarnation of the thousand-headed serpent-king named Remainder (Shesha) or Endless (Ananta), whose coils are said to support the god Vishnu.

It seems odd to us, in this time of superstar teachers with their eponymous schools of So-and-So Yoga, that so little is known about Patanjali. But anonymity is typical of the great sages of ancient India. They recognized that their teaching was the outcome of a cooperative group effort that spanned several generations, and they refused to take credit for themselves, often attributing their work to some other, older teacher.