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Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: Action (or Kriya) Yoga

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is a brilliant exposition of the philosophical principles, deep truths, and disciplines of yoga. It organizes the disciplines into eight “limbs,” or categories, of yoga practice. Specific meditation techniques are not given; only kinds of disciplines are discussed. Many of its sutras (aphorisms) describe and comment on these practices. This timeless treatise by an enlightened yogi addresses the universal human condition of apparent separation from God (avidya, not knowing the Supreme Reality) and shows us how to overcome the mental tendencies and illusions that keep us in this condition.

Like tree limbs, which emerge in sequence, the first disciplines come first. As they develop, mature and bear fruit, the next ones are practiced. For example, yama prepares one to practice niyama. Patanjali calls the last three elements of niyama “kriya yoga” (“kriya” means action). yoga swing pro Marshall Govindan takes the position that these three elements of kriya (or action) yoga constitute the whole of Patanjali’s yoga. However, all eight limbs are discussed in great detail in verses 2.30 through 3.8 of the Sutras and provide a far more complete description of yoga.

In verse 2.1, Patanjali says: “Kriya yoga consists of tapas (austerity, self-discipline), svadhyaya (self-study), and Ishvara pranidhana (devotional surrender to God).” (Note: The words in parentheses are commonly accepted translations of the Sanskrit terms.) In the “eight-limbed” path, the kriya yoga practices of niyama precede asana (meditation posture), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses from their objects), dharana (concentration), dhyana (uninterrupted, deep concentration), and samadhi (oneness with the object of meditation). For this reason, “kriya yoga” is sometimes interpreted “preliminary yoga.” However, the first of the eight limbs, yama, consists of five abstentions (don’ts), and the five elements of niyama are observances (dos), so the kriya yoga practices of niyama can also be interpreted “action yoga,” which implies doing something.

The following comments from Govindan’s book on the Sutras contradict Yogananda and other enlightened yogis, who concur that the yoga of Patanjali is the “eight-limbed” path.

Foreword (xiv, xv) by G. Feuerstein: “… while Patanjali’s teaching has become virtually equated with eight-limbed yoga (ashtanga yoga), he himself called his path that of action yoga (kriya yoga) in pada 2.1.” “The aphorisms in the Yoga Sutras dealing specifically with the eight limbs appear to have been quoted by Patanjali or subsequently added to his text. There is no real satisfactory explanation for why Patanjali used the label kriya yoga for his teachings.”

Introduction Part 2 (xxiii) by M. Govindan: “Feuerstein has pointed out, however, that Patanjali’s yoga was not the “ashtanga” or “eight-limbed” yoga, described in verses 2.28 to 3.8, as has been commonly thought by most translators. Textual analysis has revealed that these verses were merely quoted from another unknown source.”

On the contrary, Patanjali never called his path that of action (or kriya) yoga; not in verse 2.1 (pada 2.1), nor in any other verse, nor did he say it consisted of anything other than ashtanga yoga. And if he had quoted the verses pertaining to ashtanga yoga, it would indicate that he agreed with them.

In Chapter Three of The Holy Science by Swami Sri Yukteswar a yoga teaching that includes the practices of ashtanga yoga is presented, but it is somewhat different from that of the Yoga Sutras and appears to represent a different school of yoga. This illustrates that the principles, truths and practices of yoga are universal and can be discovered by yogis independently of each other. Of course, two different people would never perceive, categorize or explain these principles, truths and practices in exactly the same way, so unless verses 2.28 to 3.8 of the Sutras were compiled from various sources, they are the unique creation of a single person. That person appears to be Patanjali because there is perfect agreement and harmony between these verses and the other verses in the Sutras.

With regard to the idea that Patanjali’s yoga was not the eight-limbed path but only kriya yoga and that verses 2.28 to 3.8 were either quoted by him or added to his text later on, the following points should be considered. If Patanjali had quoted these verses it would mean that he agreed with what they say. One of them, verse 2:29, states that yoga consists of eight limbs, and other verses discuss each of the practices of kriya yoga, treating them as elements of the second limb. Moreover, apart from the verses about ashtanga yoga, which according to Govindan and Feuerstein, did not come from Patanjali, there are only two verses in the Yoga Sutras about kriya yoga. If Patanjali’s path was kriya yoga and the verses pertaining to ashtanga yoga were added to his text later on, we would expect him to have devoted more than two verses to describing and commenting on his path.

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