Patanjali and his times

The Great Yogi, Shiva, and his family. Kangra painting, Walters Art Museum.
  • Insightful article on Sage Patanjali. His origin, association with Kashmir, period of presence and Nag worship in Kashmir Valley.

The Yoga-sūtra of Patañjali is one of the two central texts of classical Yoga 1; the other being the Bhagavad Gītā. Many Yoga practices begin with an invocation to Patañjali. Given the worldwide popularity of Yoga, almost everyone has heard of him, but books say very little about his life, and most don’t know why his images show him with a serpent tail.


Yoga is most associated with Shiva, the Great Yogi, who internalizes the oppositions of our lived experience: life and death are a pair, as is love and detachment, and ambition and meaninglessness. Shiva lives in the cremation grounds, although he is the ideal husband to Pārvatī; his is another name for the Light that illuminates the mind, but he is also Mahākāla, the Great End personified. Read  Mahalkalehwar Mandir and Corridor


There is an Indian tradition going back at least to King Bhoja Paramāra of the 11th century in his commentary on the Yoga-sūtras called the Bhojavṛtti that Patañjali authored not only the book on Yoga but also the Mahābhāṣya (“Great Commentary” on grammar and language), and a treatise on Āyurveda. A much earlier remark by the poet and linguist Bhartṛhari (c. 500 CE) also speaks of a sage who did all three, namely Yoga, grammar, and Ᾱyurveda and since his time is not that far removed from the time of the Mahābhāṣya, it seems reasonable to assume that he was referring to Patañjali.


The medical text attributed to Patañjali is Pātañjalatantra, and it is considered a medical authority in a number of Sanskrit texts such as Yogaratnākara, Yogaratnasamuccaya, and Padārthavijñāna, but it is lost now.


The Indian tradition is agreed that many great early grammarians of Sanskrit hailed from the region of Takshashila (Taxila), which may be seen as part of Greater Kashmir 2. As the Maurya Empire became the predominant power in north India in 4th century BCE, there was a stream of scholars that left Takshashila to seek fortune in Pāṭaliputra.


Thus Rājaśekhara in his Kāvya-Mīmaṃsā (9th century) says that grammarians like Upavarṣa, Varṣa, Pāṇini, Piṅgala, Vyāḍi, Vararuci, and Patañjali obtained fame in Pāṭaliputra. It is likely that Patañjali lived for some years there, which later led to the belief that he was from the east (Gauḍa), and then as his fame grew this location was transferred to south India, and even Thailand.


The Mahābhāṣya has been the authority on classical Sanskrit for more than 2,000 years. Its ideas on structure, grammar and philosophy of language have been extremely influential in the Sanskrit tradition.


There is compelling evidence that Patañjali was a Kashmiri, which is of enormous contemporary interest. This fact is naturally important to those who do Yoga; it is also relevant to those who are interested in mapping of cognitive content of text to derived meaning in artificial intelligence, and to the search for a new paradigm for medicine as a holistic discipline, where Āyurveda appears to offer solutions. There is a mathematical theorem that three-way logic is more efficient than binary logic, and recasting medicine in three-classes may make it possible to make it more patient-centered. For context remember that Āyurveda has three doshas and three gunas, whereas allopathy uses only two.


In his grammar, Patañjali speaks of the idea of sphoṭa, which is the utterance that remains unaffected by individual speaker differences. Later, Bhartṛhari (6th century CE), made sphoṭa central to his theory that the sentence (rather than just the stringing together of words) is indivisible (akhanḍa), conveying meaning that owes to the cognitive content (samvit) of the entire utterance. The idea that the sentence is more than a mere concatenation of words is of great significance to the ongoing debates in AI.


Date of Patanjali

The date of the Patañjali, the author of the Mahābhāṣya, which is a commentary on the Aṣṭādhyāyī of Pāṇini, is known to be mid 2nd century BCE from the fact that it mentions Puṣyamitra of the Śuṅga dynasty, who ruled from 185–149 BCE, as a contemporary. 


Patañjali’s authorship of seminal books in three different fields is in the following verse:

योगेन चित्तस्य पदेन वाचां मलं शरीरस्य च वैद्यकेन। योऽपाकरोत्तं प्रवरं मुनीनां पतञ्जलिं प्राञ्जलिरानतोऽस्मि॥

yōgena cittasya padena vācāṃ malaṃ śarīrasya ca vaidyakena. yō’pākarōttaṃ pravaraṃ munīnāṃ patañjaliṃ prāñjalirānatō’smi.

Translated as, “He who removed the impurities of the mind through yoga, of speech through grammar, and of the body through medicine, to that illustrious sage, Patañjali, I bow with folded hands.”


Patañjali and Kashmir

Recently a series of papers by Professor Ashok Aklujkar have provided the definitive judgment that Patañjali’s provenance was Kashmir 3.


The main points of evidence considered by Aklujkar are:


1. Patañjali’s familiarity with the geography of Kashmir. Patañjali is also familiar with the eastern regions, but that may be due to his having spent part of his life in Pāṭaliputra, which was the great royal capital of his times.


As another example, Jinendra-buddhi, author of the Pañcikā commentary on the Kāśikā was a Kashmiri, a resident of Varāhamūla (modern Baramulla) but his work was most known in eastern India, particularly Bengal. Patanjali shows no familiarity with the geography of South India, and his association with the Tamil lands is explained by conveyance of his fame along the eastern coast of India, and in a similar way further beyond to Thailand.


2. Gonanda is the name of a mythical figure in the history of Kashmir, and one of the names of Patañjali is Gonandīya. The name “Gonanda”, written incorrectly as “Gonarda”, led some scholars astray and assigned him to the Gauḍa lands.


3. The scholar Yudhiṣṭhira Mīmāṃsaka has pointed out that Kashmiri rulers such as Jayāpīḍa (c. 775 CE) revived the teaching of the Mahābhāṣya, indicating that Patañjali had a special relationship with the place.


4. An astronomical argument on the duration of morning mentioned by Patanjali is true only for the norther regions of Kashmir and Gandhāra.


5. Patanjali’s closeness to the Atharvaveda, which was popular in Kashmir in ancient times.

Patañjali, from Sri Amritaghateshwarar Shiva temple, Melakadambur, Tamil Nadu. 

Current temple structure is dated to 12th century CE but the Kshetra is mentioned earlier, in the hymns of sage Appar (7–8th century CE)


The snake tail

The Kashmiri tradition considers Nāgas (literally, snakes, but really a totem for the residents of the valley) as connected with its geography. Existing customs include propitiation of Nāga deities, of which as a Kashmiri I have personal knowledge. Patañjali was seen as an incarnation of Ananta Nāga (or Śeṣanāga, the snake on whom Vishnu sleeps between cycles of creation) who, under the guidance of sage Kaśyapa and Vishnu, created the outlet that drained the lake that covered the valley in prehistoric times 4.


The worship of Nāgas is prescribed in the Nīlamata Purāṇa (651). One etymology of Kashmir is Kaśyapa-mar, or “Lake of Kaśyapa”.


That Nāga as a totem is also seen in the name Kārkoṭa, the dynasty to which Kashmiri Emperor Lalitāditya belonged. Karkoṭa is the Nāga who presides over the month of Pauṣa (in winter), and he and other Nāgas are assumed to reside in Pātāla (the nether world). Their characteristics mirror those of the Gandharvas who are musicians and singers to the gods, and who have been associated with the historical Gandhāra region. Read about  King Lalitaditya


Karkoṭa is also the name of a serpent (nāga) associated with Karaṅkaka, the western cremation ground (śmaśāna) that again indicates spiritual practice within Shaivism.


The totem of Nāga may have something to do with esoteric Yoga practices that involve the kuṇḍalinī, lit. “coiled snake”, a form of divine feminine energy located at the base of the spine; these practices have been popular in Kashmir, and further support for this comes from the worship of Goddess Kubjikā, whose girdle is called Karkoṭa.


The Nāga-kings, variously known as Nāgarāja, are traditionally depicted as wearing white ornaments; they have human torsos above their coiled snaketails and raised hoods above their heads. This is precisely how Patañjali is shown.



1. For the text and a translation, see my book Mind and Self.

2. The distance between Kashmir’s Sharada Peeth to Taxila is less than 200 miles

3. Ashok Aklujkar, Patañjali: A Kashmirian. In Mrinal Kaul and Ashok Aklujkar (eds.) Linguistic traditions of Kashmir, Essays in Memory of Pandit Dinanath Yaksh. DK Printworld (2008)

4. Ananta-nāga (Anantnag) is the name of the second largest city in Kashmir. Not too far from here is the Sheshnag Lake (~12,000 ft.) on the way to the Amarnath cave.


First published Here  eSamskriti has obtained permission from author to share.


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