BOOK REVIEW: Yoga Sutras by Patanjali [Trans. Charles Johnston]

Yoga Sutras of PatanjaliYoga Sutras of Patanjali by Charles Johnston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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There are about a billion editions of Patanjali’s The Yoga Sutras. The one I got was a free or very cheap on Kindle, and is, therefore, probably not the best edition. I don’t know that the Kindle version I got still exists because it included a supplemental essay by Swami Vivekananda that the version I linked to on Amazon doesn’t. However, the translation is the same, and is by Charles Johnston.

For many old works, the edition might not matter too much, but for Patanjali’s Sutras it matters a great deal. First, there’s the issue of the quality of the translation. Beyond that, however, is the question of the analysis. The Yoga Sutras are extremely brief, consisting of only 196 aphorisms. Owing to the terse brevity of the Sanskrit language, many of these aphorisms are only a few words long. That means that there isn’t a high degree of precision in the language of the Sutras, and, consequently, there’s a great deal of room for misunderstanding and misinterpretation. It’s for good reason, therefore, that most editions are 90% or greater commentary on Patanjali’s words.

The Sutras are typically divided into 4 chapters (this convention apparently came well after Patanjali wrote them.) The first section lays out the objective of yoga. The central notion is the need for Chitta Vrtta Nirodha, which basically means to transcend the fluctuations of the mind. Patanjali’s point is that the problem faced by mankind is that people’s minds are run amok. There is a need for some system to facilitate correction of all this monkey-mindedness. That’s where Chapter 2 comes in.

The second chapter lays down an outline of Ashtanga Yoga, which is the eight-fold path of Raja Yoga (i.e. Royal Yoga). While modern-day people tend to think of yoga only as pretzel-like physical postures, that’s just one of the eight limbs of yoga. The eight limbs are: commandments (yama), rules (niyama), postures (asana), control of breath (pranayama), withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), concentration (dhanara), meditation (dhyana), and liberation (samadhi.)

It’s interesting to note that the limb that many think of as yoga, i.e. the postures, is one of the most briefly covered. Most famously, Patanjali says in Ch.2, Sutra #46, “Sukham Sthiram Asanam” (i.e. postures should be stable and effortless.) The massive body of asana that developed in Hatha Yoga were initially just a means to give one the ability to sit still for a long periods of time comfortably enough to get one’s mind in order.

The third chapter talks a little bit about the last three of the eight limbs (i.e. concentration, meditation, and liberation.) However, the bulk of this chapter is devoted to the supposed magic powers that yogis claimed to have had as a result of their work on improving their minds. For skeptics and scientifically-minded individuals (e.g. yours truly), this is where the Sutras take a silly turn. The translation in question came out in 1912, and it’s clear that rationalism was already gaining hold and magic was getting to be a harder sell. I suspect that was the reason for the inclusion of Swami Vivekananda’s essay entitled “The Powers of the Mind”—to capitalize on the gravitas of the renowned yogi to convince people that chapter 3 isn’t bunk.

The fourth chapter wraps up the book neatly–discussing karma and the liberation of the karmic cycle achieved through the state of higher consciousness called samadhi.

If one has more than a superficial interest in yoga, it’s pretty much obligatory to read some edition of Patanjali’s The Yoga Sutras. I didn’t find this edition to be devastatingly poor, but there seems to be a consensus among reviewers that it’s not among the best translations / commentaries.

I would recommend that one read some version of these sutras, be it BKS Iyengar’s Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Swami Vivekananda’s edition, or Swami Satchidananda’s version. I don’t have any experience with these other editions, though I have read works by BKS Iyengar and Swami Vivekananda, and found works by both to be well-written and clear. Notwithstanding the parts about magical superpowers, the book does provide a lot of food for thought, and in nice bite-sized pieces.

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1 thought on “BOOK REVIEW: Yoga Sutras by Patanjali [Trans. Charles Johnston]

  1. I found that the most comprehensive no nonsense explanation of the yogsutras in a pdf on the web by Bardon. Check it out when u can.


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