Sunday, June 28, 2020

Patanjali's Righteous Dharma

I’d like to open by sharing the story of Patanjali as told by BKS Iyengar: “It is said that Lord Vishnu was once seated on his couch, Lord Adisesa (the Lord of Serpents) watching the enchanting dance (tandava nrtya)  of Lord Shiva. Lord Vishnu was so absorbed in the dance movements that His body began to vibrate to the rhythm of Lord Shiva. This vibration made him heavier and heavier causing a lot of discomfort to Lord Adisesa who was on the point of collapsing, gasping for breath. As soon as the dance came to end, Lord Vishnu's body became light again.

Lord Adisesa was amazed with this sudden transformation and asked his master about the cause of these stupendous changes. The Lord explained that grace, beauty, majesty and grandeur of Lord Shiva had created a corresponding graceful vibration in His own body. Amazed at this, Adisesa professed a desire to learn dancing to inspire his Lord.

Lord Vishnu predicted that soon Lord Shiva would grace Lord Adisesa to write a commentary on grammar and at that time he would also be able to devote himself to perfection in the art of dance (nrtya). Lord Adisesa was overjoyed by these words and looked forward to the grace of Lord Shiva. He then began to meditate to find out who would be his intended mother. While meditating, he had the vision of a female Yoga adept and an ascetic (a yogini and tapasvini), Gonika who was praying for a worthy son to whom she could impart her knowledge and wisdom. He realized that she would be a worthy mother for him and waited for an auspicious moment to become her son.

Gonika, thinking that her earthly life was approaching its end, had searched for a worthy son to whom she could transmit her knowledge. But she had found no one. When her penance (tapas) had come to an end, she looked to the Sun God and prayed to Him to fulfill her desire. She took a handful of water, as a final oblation to Him, closed her eyes and meditated on the Sun. She opened her eyes and looked at her palms as she was about to offer the water. To her surprise, she saw a tiny snake moving in her palms who soon took on a human form. This tiny male human prostrated to yogini Gonika and asked her to accept him as her son. Hence, she named him Patanjali. (Pata means fallen or falling and Anjali means palms folded in prayer).

This is how Sage Patanjali is said to have come into this mortal world.” 1

Patanjali is thought to go on to write the yoga sutras which is a foundational text in yoga today.  This text only contains a few verses that are about the physical practice of yoga. It mainly concerns itself with the lifestyle and philosophy of yoga. Patanjali’s story shares a few qualities with the story of Jesus and Isaac (in Genesis).  He descended to a human form to a mother thought to be too old for children.  His father is not mentioned here, but in descending to earth it is clear he did not come in the traditional way. The Yoga sutras put together much of the philosophy of yoga that is in separate texts.  I am honestly not sure which came first.

In addition to the similarities between Biblical figures and Patanjali there is also the use of the word righteous(ness) in today’s Biblical reading.  Righteous, as defined by Webster, is “acting in accord with divine or moral law.”  In Paul’s letter to the Romans he talks of righteousness as the thing we turn toward when we turn away from sin.  In both cases we are a slave, either to sin or righteousness.  Turning to the divine or moral law would appear to be the better choice. In Matthew’s gospel we are encouraged to make this better choice to receive the reward of the kingdom of heaven.

In yoga sutras righteousness might be interpreted as Dharma. “The Sanskrit word “dharma” has joined “yoga” and “karma” in common English usage. Dharma is often taken to mean “duty.” However, it is a whole lot more than this. The Sanskrit word Dharma comes from the root “dhri” which means to uplift or uphold. Dharma literally refers to “that which upholds righteousness.” A sense of righteousness, of purpose and inspiration is extremely significant on the spiritual path.” 2

Dharma is implied throughout the yoga sutras of Patanjali. When he talks of the ethics of yoga in the yamas and niyamas (10 commandments of yoga) and in the gunas (energy states) Dharma is there. In Yoga Sutra IV.34 dharma is referenced within the Purusartha or the “fourfold aims of man; discharging one’s duties and obligations to oneself, one’s family, society, and country (dharma); pursuit of vocation or profession, following one’s means of livelihood and acquisition of wealth (artha); cultured and artistic pursuits, love, and gratification of desires (kama); emancipation or liberation from worldly life (moksa).”1  Part of the idea of the dharma wheel, a symbol in Indian religions, refers to the cyclical nature of life.  As stated in the Purusartha, and in Paul’s letter, life is not all righteous, but the hope is that each turn of the wheel brings us closer to righteous liberation and further from sin.


Genesis 22:1-14

God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your

son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a

burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the

morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut

the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had

shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said

to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship,

and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on

his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.

Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire

and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself

will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the

wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then

Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to

him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay

your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not

withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a

thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead

of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the

mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”


Romans 6:12-23

Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No

longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as

those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments

of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under


What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you

not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one

whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?

But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the

heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from

sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of your natural

limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and

greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.

When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you

then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But

now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is

sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is

eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.


Matthew 10:40-42

Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one

who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's

reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive

the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones

in the name of a disciple-- truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”


1 BKS Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali


Photo: Prismatic Dharma Wheel Public Domain



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