Who is Patanjali?

Who is Patanjali?

Original article in Czech language by David from Korenyjogy.cz

Traditional yoga texts are mostly technical or philosophical. There are at most brief mentions of famous yogis – mostly just names. However, in folk tradition we can find a whole series of stories associated with important yogis of the past. They tend to be fun stories full of miracles, gods and demons. In this series of articles, we would show you some such stories.
We have already talked about Matsjéndranáth and his disciple Górakhnáth in this series of articles. Now comes perhaps the most famous yogi today - Patanjali. Most people know him without a doubt because of the Yoga Sutras, which have become his most famous work. But as far as his person is concerned, unfortunately, we know absolutely nothing for sure. Only various legends have survived.

We even know three of the traditional texts that Patanjali was supposed to have written. On the one hand, they are the already mentioned Yoga Sutras, which certainly do not need to be introduced. Then it is a very important commentary called simply Mahabhashya (great commentary) on the Lord's work on Sanskrit grammar (Ashtadhyaji). This work used to be the most famous of Patanjali's works. Yoga was not so popular in the past, and moreover, not all yogis subscribed to Patanjali's approach. And further we know of a text on Ayurveda called Patanjalatantra. Unfortunately, it has not been preserved and we only know it thanks to mentions in other texts. Today, experts agree that these texts were not written by one Patanjali, but by three persons who lived in completely different times and only had the same name. But we are mainly interested in the legends here, and according to them, one Patanjali wrote all three writings.

For a long time no one wrote Patanjali's biography. It probably existed in various forms in the oral tradition and was written down as late as Ramabhadra Dikshita (17th century) in the Patanjali Charitra. Patanjali is occasionally mentioned in other texts, but this is the first work dedicated solely to him. So what does the poet write about Patanjali's life?

Lord Vishnu always takes birth on earth from time to time to save it. When he's not saving the world, he's snoozing on the thousand-headed serpent Adishes. Once in his divine slumber (yoganidra), Vishnu saw the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva (tandava). This sight filled him with bliss, and after waking up he told about it to Adishes. Adisesha was also eager to see him because he was, among other things, a great devotee of the god Shiva. Vishnu told him, “That is exactly what Shiva also desires. He tells you that although Panini has written a text that clarifies Sanskrit grammar, no good and detailed commentary has yet been written on it. Shiva is not at all satisfied with the existing commentaries because they are not clear and the knowledge of Sanskrit grammar is thus spreading very slowly. Because of this people misunderstand the sastras (sacred texts) and confusion arises. That is why you are born on earth, witness Shiva's cosmic dance and then write an insightful and detailed commentary on Panini's work.'

If Shiva himself wishes it, then it is a done deal. Therefore, Adishesha began to look around the country to find a suitable family to be born into. In a beautiful forest he saw the pious Gónica, who was performing the rites for the birth of a virtuous son. Adishesha was sure that this would be the ideal mother for him and decided to be born to her. Because he was not just an ordinary person, he was naturally born in a divine way. When Gónica was worshiping the sun, she scooped up water in her hands and then slowly poured it on the ground, and along with the water, a small child fell to the ground. She was very happy with him and named him Patanjali because "he fell (pat) from the joined palms (anjali)".

Due to his human birth, Patanjali forgot that he was Adisesha, but from his earliest childhood he had a desire to meditate on the god Shiva. Thanks to this intensive practice, Shiva soon appeared to him. He explained to Patanjali that he was the incarnation of Adisesha and told him that he must go to the city of Chidambaram where he would see his dance and through this he could fulfill his main task on earth - to write the Mahabhashya. We could probably ask what dance has to do with grammar. The original text from which Panini was based is called the Mahéšvarasútra and it was created directly from the sounds of Shiva's drum (damaru). By witnessing Shiva's dance with his own eyes, Patanjali will also hear the sound of his drum, so he will have direct knowledge of the source of Sanskrit grammar.

When Patanjali arrives at Chidambaram, gods and great saints are already gathering there to witness Shiva's dance as well. Finally, Shiva himself arrives, mounted on the bull Nandim, with a crescent moon adorning his forehead, and his wife Parvati. He then begins his dance. The sight of him completely absorbs everyone – they forget their individual existence and become one with Shiva. Tándava cannot be observed as something separate, as an ordinary external thing. It is a state transcending duality (advaita) which is attained by Shiva's grace.
After the dance was over, Shiva reminded Patanjali not to forget to write that commentary and then disappeared, along with the other gods and saints. Patanjali started writing and soon his Mahabhashya was already spreading. Due to this, students who wanted detailed knowledge of Sanskrit grammar began to come to him. Patanjali decided to teach them all. The problem was that there were more of them and at the same time they had to be taught individually. To somehow solve this, Patanjali had them sit in a row behind a curtain and himself changed into his original form - a thousand-headed snake. This way he could teach each student individually and all at the same time. The students could not see behind the curtain and thus did not understand how it was possible for one person to teach everyone individually. Patanjali assigned one of his senior students, Gaudapada, to see that no one peeked behind the curtain.

But one day, curiosity got the better of me and several students along with Gaudapada peeked behind the curtain. Here they saw Patanjali's true form - the thousand-headed serpent Adisesha. This stunned them, but they soon realized what they had done. By peeking behind the curtain, they have grossly violated their teacher's order, and there is nothing worse than disrespecting your teacher (especially when he is an incarnation of Adishesha). Gaudapada decided to take all the blame and told Patanjali that it was his fault. He told him that he had left in the middle of the lesson so he wasn't watching the curtain. Patanjali was angry because this meant that Gaudapada left the lesson without saying the final mantra. He cursed him for it and Gaudapada turned into a demon (rakshasa). Because he was a scholar, he became not an ordinary demon, but a brahma rakshasa - he gathers knowledge, but keeps it for himself and does not teach it to anyone. Patanjali then turned into an old man and told Gaudapada how to break this curse: he must find someone to tell him the correct form of the past participle from the Sanskrit root pach. Of course, it's not that easy. Most people will say that the answer is no. But the roots belong to a different class (even if it doesn't look like it) and the answer is pakka.

After explaining the Mahabhashya, Patanjali also wrote the Yoga Sutras and a treatise on Ayurveda. Having thus accomplished his task, he decided to leave the mortal body and return to the god Vishnu as Adisesha.

Some time passed and Adisesha saw that his teachings were not spreading much on earth. The problem was that Gaudapada was still a brahma rakshasa and therefore did not teach anyone. Therefore, Adishesha took a human body again. He was born as Chandra and immediately went to Gaudapada, to whom he correctly answered his question and thus freed him from the curse. Even when a god is born, he must have a teacher (if only to keep the tradition), so Chandra asked Gaudapada to teach him Mahabhashya. In order to learn it as quickly as possible, he did not sleep or eat. So he was able to learn it in a record two months.

Thanks to Chandra, the Mahabhashya and the related rules of Sanskrit grammar spread throughout India. In his old age, Chandra decided to renounce worldly life and became a sannyasin named Govindasvami. He lived in a cave at Badrinath immersed in deep samadhi. Here he was also found by Adi Shankaracharya (he was an incarnation of the god Shiva for a change), who became his disciple. He later wrote the famous commentary on the Brahmasutras and is still considered the most important representative of Advaita Vedanta - but that is another story.
So much for Patanjali. Patanjali's work was popular mainly among the educated, and the stories about his life also correspond to this. Traditionally, the emphasis is on cultivation and purity of speech, mind and body, and it was Patanjali who wrote three works dedicated to these three areas. This is reminded by the various mantras dedicated to him. In addition, one of them is also especially suitable to recite before you start reading the Yoga Sutras:

yogéna cittasya padéna vacám malam sharírasya ča vaidyakén
yo'pákaróttam pravaram muninam patanjalim prañjaliranatósmi
ábáhu purushákaram shankha chakrasi dharinam
sahasra shirasam svetam pranamami patanjali

With clasped hands (anjali) I bow to the greatest of saints (muni), Patanjali, who brought yoga for the ailments of the mind, grammar for the ailments of speech, and Ayurveda for the ailments of the body.

I bow down to Patanjali, who has the form of a man up to his shoulders, holding a conch, a discus and a sword in his hands and having a thousand shining heads.

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