atanjali, undoubtedly the greatest
expounder of Yoga, lived sometime
between 500 and 200 B.C. The life of Patanjali is an enigma to modern
historians, and almost nothing is known about this great Master who
epitomizes Yoga. It is only with the help of legends that one can draw
inferences about him. Undoubtedly he was a great Yoga adept and was
perhaps the head of a school in which “Swadhyaya”, study of the Self, was
regarded as an important aspect of spiritual practice.
history is presumptive of several individuals by the name of Patanjali.
Three of them were well-known; the first one being the famous grammarian
who wrote the commentary on Panini’s Ashtadhyayi (the Mahabhashya) and
compiled the Yoga Sutras, the classical text on Raja Yoga. The
Mahabhashya symbolises the perfection of the discipline in grammar. The
object of grammar is to supply rules for control of current speech (laukika)
for the preservation of the integrity of the Vedas and the comprehension
of proper meaning. The second person named Patanjali wrote the Nidana-Sutras,
considered indispensable for the study of the Vedic ritual literature; while the third was a well-known teacher of Samkhya Philosophy. The
above three people, in the historian's view, happen to come from
different time periods and are considered to be different personalities.
The Indian Tradition however, differs in opinion strongly and advocates
that the above different treatises were done by a single person and even
attributes various medical treatises to him.
In the Indian tradition, Patanjali is said to be self-born, swayambhu.
He was a highly-evolved soul who incarnated of his own will in a human
form to help humanity.
He is also considered an incarnation of Ananta, the
source of all wisdom (Jnana) and of Shesha, the thousand-headed ruler of the
serpent race, which is thought to guard the hidden treasures of the
earth. Ananta depicts a couch on which God Vishnu reclines. He is the
Lord of serpents and his many heads symbolize Infinity or Omnipresence.
Many yogis bow to Ananta before they begin their daily yogic practice.
In one of the legends, it is said that Lord Vishnu was seated on Adishesha, the Lord of serpents as His couch, watching the enchanting
dance of Lord Shiva. Lord Vishnu was so totally absorbed in the dance
of Lord Shiva, that His body began to vibrate to its rhythm.
This vibration made Him heavier and heavier, causing Adishesha to feel
so uncomfortable that he was gasping for breath and was on the point of
collapse. The moment the dance came to an end, Lord Vishnu’s body became
light again. Adishesha was amazed and asked his master the cause of
these stupendous changes. The Lord explained that the grace, beauty,
majesty and grandeur of Lord Shiva’s dance had created corresponding
vibrations in His own body, making it heavy. Marvelling at this,
Adishesha professed a desire to learn dance so as to exalt his Lord.
Vishnu then became thoughtful, and predicted that soon Lord Shiva would
grace Adishesha to write a commentary on grammar, and that he would then
also be able to devote himself to perfection in the art of dance. Adishesha was overjoyed by these words and looked forward to the descent
of Lord Shiva’s grace.
Adishesha then began to meditate to ascertain who
would be his mother on earth. In meditation, he had the vision of a
yogini by the name of Gonika who was praying for a worthy son to whom
she could impart her knowledge and wisdom. He at once realized that she
would be a worthy mother for him, and awaited an auspicious moment to
become her son.
Gonika, thinking that her earthly life was
approaching its end, and that her desire of finding a worthy son would
remain unfulfilled; now, as a last resort looked to the Sun God, the
living witness of God on earth and prayed to Him to fulfil her desire.
She took a handful of water as a final oblation to Him, closed her eyes
and meditated on the Sun. As she was about to offer the water, she
opened her eyes and looked at her palms. To her surprise, she saw a tiny
snake moving in her palms, who soon took on a human form. This tiny male
human being prostrated to Gonika and asked her to accept him as her son.
This she did and named him Patanjali because her hands had been in the
prayerful gesture (anjali) and he had fallen (pat) from heaven.*
Another incidence is said to have happened in Chidambaram (also known as
Thillai ) located about a hundred miles from Madras. Chidambaram is
considered to be one of the holiest temples in India. In this temple,
Lord Nataraja is present in his cosmic-dancing form. The story goes that
once in Darukavanam, Shiva wished to teach a lesson to the Rishis who
were proud of their learning. Shiva took the form of a mendicant with a
begging bowl in hand, accompanied by Vishnu disguised as
rishipatnis (wives of the Rishis) were attracted by the sight of this
The Rishis grew angry and tried to destroy the pair.
They performed a sacrificial fire and raised a tiger from the fire,
which sprang at Shiva. Shiva pealed off the skin of the tiger and
wrapped it round his waist. Then again the Rishis sent a poisonous
serpent and Shiva tied it round his neck. Then the Rishis sent against
Shiva an Apasmara Purusha, Muyalaka, whom Lord Shiva crushed by pressing
him to the ground with his foot.
At this, the Rishis confessed defeat and Shiva started to dance before
all the Gods and Rishis. Lord Adishesha heard the description of Shiva’s
dance at Darukavanam from Vishnu and requested Vishnu to allow him to
witness the dance himself. Vishnu agreed to this. Adishesha performed
penance and prayed to Shiva to allow him to see the dance. Being pleased with his penance, Shiva appeared
to him and
promised that he would dance at Tillai (Chidambaram). Accordingly, Adishesha
was born as a human being, as Patanjali, and went to the forest of
At this time a certain sage, Vyaghrapada, also lived
in this forest.
Vyaghrapada was the son of Madhyandina Rishi who lived on the banks of the Ganga. He came to the South under the directions of his father and
started praying to the Swayambhulinga under a banyan tree near a tank in
this Tillai forest. He used to collect flowers for puja and he prayed
for the boon of getting tiger’s feet and claws, so that he could easily
climb up the trees and pluck plenty of flowers. He also prayed for the
eyes of bees, so that he could collect the flowers before any bee could
taste the honey in them. His prayer for these two blessings was granted, and
since he had the feet of a tiger, he was called Vyaghrapada.
his own hermitage, Patanjali at Ananteeswaram and Vyaghrapada at
Tirupuleeswaram in Chidambaram. They started worshipping Shiva in the
form of the Swayambhulinga in Tillai forest. Days passed and when
the time came for Shiva to give them Darshan, the guardian
Goddess of the place, Kalika Devi, interfered and did not allow Shiva to
give His Darshan.
Shortly afterwards, Shiva and Devi agreed that they should participate
in a dance contest and that the winner should have undisputed possession
of Tillai. So the dance started.
At one moment during the dance, the Lord’s earrings fell down, but the Lord
took them up from the floor in such a way that nobody could notice the
loss and the recovery. This dance is called Urdhva Tandavam in which
Shiva defeated Kalika Devi.
Now Nataraja performed the Ananda Tandavam, i.e. the
Dance of Bliss, in the presence of Shivakamasundari and all the Gods and
Rishis, and at the same time fulfilled the wish of the two devotees,
Patanjali and Vyaghrapada, by allowing them to witness it and thus
Another story tells that once upon a time Nandi,
Shiva’s carrier, would not allow Patanjali Muni to have Darshan of Lord
Shiva (Nataraja of Chidambaram). In order to reach Lord Shiva, Patanjali,
with his mastery over grammatical forms, spontaneously composed a prayer
in praise of the Lord without using any extended (Dirgha) syllable,
(without Charana and Shringa) i.e. leg and horn, to tease Nandi.
Shiva was quickly pleased, gave Darshan to the
devotee and danced to the lilting tune of this song.
These three short legends throw some light upon Patanjali and his
greatness. Today unfortunately even Patanjali’s lineage does not appear
to exist anymore. Patanjali’s life is obscure, with precise details
about his place of birth, life and personality missing; this uncertainty
however does not detract the great merit of the Patanjali Yoga-Sutras.
It is the most condensed traditional outline of the yogic path and
should be studied in depth by all serious students of Yoga. Yogacharya
B.K.S Iyengar, who is definitely one of the greatest exponents of
Patanjali Yoga Sutras, is responsible for shedding much light on the
greatness of Patanjali and his writings. It is his great vision that
brought to the forefront, the science of Patanjali Yoga Sutras and its
our daily lives.
* Compiled from “Light on Patanjali Yoga Sutras” by Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar.