Greatest thinker ever: Patanjali


And so: the winner. The Hannibal Blog‘s search for what makes great thinkers great, and what does not, took ten posts. My nominee is Patanjali.


Those of you who have been checking in regularly might have had your suspicions that something yogically-themed would come up again. But do not make the mistake of thinking that Patanjali is “only” about Yoga! Yes, he wrote (or so we think) the Yoga Sutras, which is, along with the Bhagavad Gita and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the three great texts of Yoga. But what he said–with masterly economy, in 196 aphorisms that form a single logical thread (sutra)–qualifies not only as the earliest but also as the greatest thinking yet on the human mind.

Mind matter

And that says it all: This is about the mind, or psyche in Greek. So he was, with the Buddha (who might possibly have been a contemporary), one of the first psychologists. That said, the ancient Indians put our psychologists to shame.

We Westerners have one word for mind (not counting breath or spirit, which the ancients conflated), just as we have one word (give or take) for snow. The Yogis had hundreds of words for mind, just as the Eskimos have many words for snow. That is because they observed it with so much more nuance. For example, the Bhagavad Gita is about a war between the five Pandava brothers against their cousins, the one hundred Kaurava brothers. The five Pandavas represent the five positive minds, including Arjuna, who represents buddhi, or clear intelligence. The one hundred Kauravas represent all the negative minds (fear, anger, envy,….)

Stillness and …

Let’s cut to the chase. The first sutra simply says Now we start this exposition on Yoga. But in the second sutra Patanjali essentially says it all. (Talk about simplicity!) It is famous, so here is the Sanskrit:

Yogah cittavrtti nirodhah

This is the E=MC² of the mind. It means (using Iyengar’s translation):

Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness.

There is a lot of important precision in that slightly clunky-sounding phrase, but we would be oversimplifying only slightly by reducing it to my phrase:

Yoga is a still mind

A reader who grasps all the ramifications could stop reading there. Most of us do not. So Patanjali elaborates…

… Motion

The trouble is that the mind is almost never still. It moves, pulled by thoughts as wild as bucking broncos. And this is what confuses and torments us. Patanjali’s greatest (and most overlooked) contribution is his analysis of these naughty ones that we call thoughts or emotions.

You know them all: anger, fear, envy, greed, lust, anxiety and so on. They show up and take your mind captive. You think they are you, and you suffer and make others suffer.

Patanjali proves that they are not you. You can, with the techniques that he describes, let them go. A naughty one shows up in your mind stage left, you say, ‘Oh Hi, Mr Anger’ and label him, then allow him to exit again stage right. And you keep doing that.

Over time, you make a discovery. Who is saying Hi and doing the labeling and letting go? It can’t be Mr Anger. So anger is not me, it’s just some schmuck passing through. See you!

I am therefore something else. Patanjali calls this I the seer. As the seer sees more clearly, the mind comes to rest.

And for all those who are still with him at that point, he sketches out how to unite (=Yoga) with this seer in order to feel whole and free. Non-trivial, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

Bookmark and Share

26 thoughts on “Greatest thinker ever: Patanjali

  1. Very interesting and very surprising selection. Just because the core idea is true, albeit metaphysical, does that make this Yoga master the greatest thinker? How about Sri Aribindo? Certainly his book, The Life Divine, affected more people than Patanjali, right?

    Of course, many cheap and silly spin-offs of Patanjali’s profound thinking abound, from the encounter groups such as EST and LIfe Training, as well as pyscho talk show hosts, Dr. Phil and Deepak Chopra.

    My question is this: What about Patanjali’s thinking and development of yoga practice sets him above the honorable mentions? I would like you to answer that question. If you are watching the Super Bowl, I can wait until its conclusion.

  2. My thinking went as follows, Cheri:
    In the post that featured, among others, Plato, I quoted Alfred North Whitehead, who said that all of Western philosophy is but a series of footnotes to Plato. That’s directly true for the Neo-Platoninsts (Plotinus, Augustine….) and indirectly for the Neo-Aristotelians. Every Western philosopher, no matter how genius, really elaborated on Plato.
    In the East, I think Plato = Patanjali. Laozi and the Buddha are the alternatives. (But Mr Crotchety would never forgive me if I were to nominate Laozi.) Everybody since Patanjali really just elaborated on him.
    In the case of Sri Aurobindo, the elaboration was apparently brilliant. I did not read him, but I had a long chat with Michael Murphy once, who is the co-founder of the Esalen Institute and was heavily influenced by Sri Aurobindo. So Sri Aurobindo belongs up there in our evolving Pantheon….

  3. How are Kuhn, Nietzsche, Goedel, Hobbes, Ricardo, and Darwin, reacting to your choice of Patanjali as the greatest thinker ever? Are they wearing false smiles, and congratulating Patanjali on being chosen, while wishing secretly to bash his head in?

    Or not?

  4. Kuhn was overheard mumbling that Patanjali’s paradigm is due for a shift; Nietzsche told me that meditation is for slaves; Goedel turned to Kuhn and said whispered that the Yoga Sutras are incomplete; Hobbes ran after Patanjali and asked ‘So you’re really not afraid anymore?’; Ricardo said ‘you meditate and I’ll empty the latrine, that way you can meditate more’; Darwin said ‘Ah, but how many little Patanjalis are there?’.
    Actually, it’s Hegel we’re all worried about. He stormed out huffing and puffing. We think he might hurt himself….

  5. OK, I guess this race is over but if I were creating a list, I would like to nominate (saint) Paul of Tarsus.

    I apologize if my very superficial understanding of Christian thought offends anyone but this is how I see it:

    Here is a guy who never even met Jesus, and comes up with the most successful religion ever. If you look at it, it even matches your criteria:

    Lets make religion easy to access. You don’t need to be of a given birth, know the old testament or even live a righteous life. If you accept Jesus now and for the rest of your life, heaven awaits.

    Christianity is a Darwinian religion (the irony) , constantly adapting with the times, not afraid to adopt foreign “genes” to create more successful hybrids. It took hundreds of years after Paul’s work for Christianity to really take off, but the seeds were planted there and then.

    Well, this one is a home run… The dozens of great thinkers who followed Paul’s work within Christianity are joined by others who were inspired by his work to create new religions (Muhammad, Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard)

    In short, I am not sure Paul was the greatest, but how about the most influential?

  6. Paul is a good one. If I recall, the issue of circumcision set off his thinking: Does one need it to be a Christian–ie, can gentiles be Christian too? He said No. It’s “faith alone” that matters.
    Indeed a big idea!

  7. What a silly old fool I am! I have only just discovered this stream of thought. How far behind am I, Andreas? Forgive me if I now get embarrassingly personal.
    I can only speak from my own experience of existence and, paraphrasing your winner, all the frenzied thoughts, sensations, feelings and intuitions are subordinate to a mysterious stillness that confers infinite comfort. Note thinking, the subject of your investigation, is within the list of subordinates.
    I recall a handful of occasions in my life, independent of Art, when this awareness has suddenly and unexpectedly taken over without any kind of preparation or preparedness on my part.
    The most significant was shortly after I had visited my mother a week before she died, 15 years ago, at 90. I had no idea she was even ill. Amid the bustle of the World there came a perfect stillness, love and quiet that I new came from the eternal. The beyond became present, and then faded slowly from my view.
    Other occasions occurred at vital turning-points in my life, where, as my father would have put it, there was an inevitablity to events over which I seemed to have no control, and the outcomes were always right. Guidance also comes in what appear at the time trivial issues, but which turn out sometimes not to be. A presence constantly cares for the big and small in my life and adds this infinite beauty, constancy and poignancy. A presence that suffers for me.
    It is these happenings which form the basis of my religious faith, yet I lose sight if I am not prepared to question my most cherished impressions and conclusions.
    And then you find is has all been said before, throughout the ages. Thank you.

  8. Just to add, there is an eloquence, unerring precision, directness and stunning conciseness to this presence, which means it is an external intelligence.

  9. Thank you for nominating Patanjali. I’d never heard of him, and I come from where he came from. I’m going to look for the Yoga Sutra in my bookstore.

    In any case, I know very little about philosophy and its practitioners -I wouldn’t be able to write more than one sentence on each of the nominees for ‘greatest thinker’ (except yours, on whom I can write none)- and although I’d love to expand my knowledge I don’t know where to start. Is it better to begin by reading about each philosopher individually, or to pick up a book which explains the philosophy of all the greats, and then go on to reading them separately?

    • You come from northern India, Susan?

      Patanjali would not normally be considered a “philosopher” in the West. Which is why I’ve called this a series on “thinkers”, not philosophers. He is, of course, a philosopher in the original sense of the word: ie, a ‘lover of wisdom’.

      I think you would go berserk trying to read each thinker individually discussed in this series. Indeed, Hegel would put you over the edge all by himself, and probably within ten pages.

      So save yourself the pain and get a good intro. I will look through my shelf of old books to see if I can recommend one. In the mean time, other commenters might jump in with their recommendations….


    • The Crotchety way is to read a little here (Hannibal Blog) and there (Wikipedia) and then extrapolate. If you feel the urge to comment, and there’s someone you have actually read, write ad nauseam (using latin if possible). If you run out of material, write something cryptic (with a far-away look in your eyes). You sound intelligent and sincere, so don’t listen to me. I’m just saying.

      I recommend The Internet Classics Archive for the HB reading list. It’s free and you can electronically search words like Hannibal.

  10. Namaste!

    Yes, I am from North India- New Delhi, to be precise. Thank you for the guidance, Andreas and Mr. Crotchety. I hope I can find an introduction to philosophy as good as an introduction to economics that I chanced upon- John Kenneth Galbraith’s ‘A History Of Economics’.

  11. Why does the ‘you’ want to get rid off all the emotions and thoughts? Is not the desire to rid oneself of these things, also desire which should be got rid of? Why are they not also part of a ‘you’?
    Yours sincerely,
    A Taoist.

    • That’s today’s Zen Koan, Paul. 😉

      It’s so circular that my head spins. It’s of course infinitely easier to give up the desire to desire than to give up desire. I’ve done that. I’ve sold out and remained neurotic.

  12. Andreas — your former classmate chiming in here from Seattle. What is the best translation of Patanjali in your opinion? I have been starting yoga as a remedy for joints battered by years of sports and am loving it. Would love your thoughts on the best translations of the three great texts of yoga. If any of them are Kindle ready, even better.

    • Welcome to the HB, Andrew.

      Yoga might be a great idea for your hockey body.

      that said, you started off with a tough question. I’m standing in front of my bookshelf, wondering what to advise.

      For people new to yoga, the “three great texts” of yoga (the Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutras, and Hatha Yoga Pradipika) can be off-putting and intimidating at first. After all, you’re not (probably) starting yoga to be enlightened, even though you may get curious about that later.

      The third, the Pradipika, is a weird text. A lot of it is about the more photogenic and bizarre practices of yoga, such as cleansing yourself by running a thread through your nose and out your mouth, or shooting water up your butt and what not. I have an old copy that I found in a specialist store somewhere in Asia. It’s mostly of historical interest to me. Frankly, I would not bother.

      The Gita is a different story. It’s the Bible of the subcontinent and thus worth reading anyway, but (like the Iliad or Aeneid or, indeed, the Bible) it’s not an easy read, not matter who translates it. I sort of recommended one translation here.

      So what you’re really after is the Sutras. I have several translations.

      The bestseller seems to be Satchidananda’s commentary. I have it and read it years ago, and it’s alright.

      I also have Iyengar’s Light on the Yoga Sutras. Also fine. (None is a pager turner, I can’t give glowing praise).

      Long story short: Another commenter on the Hannibal Blog, Duncan Work, who seems to have studied this a lot more than I have, recommended, in the long thread under this post, Alistair Shearer’s translation, so that’s the one you should get.

      There is a twist: On that Amazon page you see that it has a Kindle edition, and that’s the one I bought. The strange thing (at least when I did, it may have been fixed) is that this Kindle edition does NOT seem to be Shearer’s.

      Anyway, that’s the one I now have on my Kindle but have not properly test-read yet. the advantage of having it on hte Kindle/iPhone, of course, is that you can “snack” on a Sutra whenever you’re at the DMV or some place like that.

      Go with that.

  13. Thanks for all the info. I too noticed the comments that the Kindle version of the Shearer translation is incorrectly tied to him, and not the hardcover of the book it really belongs to. Oh well. So I grabbed a hard copy and got some other Kindle samples of related texts to try. The Gita version “for Westerners” is Kindle ready so I will try that first.

    As for enlightenment, aren’t we all looking for it? Even hockey players. 🙂

    Yoga certainly appeals to me for physical restoration, but the mental part is even better. As you remember from the soccer pitch, you play best in the so-called “zone” where action happens without active thought. If I was asked to explain my best plays in any sport, I probably could not because I was so “in the moment” it just seemed to happen. Yoga seems to allow me to get into a sort of daily zone, or to get to a place where it is easier to be in the moment no matter what I am attempting.

    Have you ever connected with Anne Kerr Kennedy from Taft (clas of ’90) about yoga. She founded Hyde yoga gear and seems to be thriving in the yoga attire world.

    Love the blog. I turned Jol onto it a few weeks ago when he was here visiting. He recalled you as a great history student. So I’ll have to find a way to get a signed copy of your book into his hands when it comes out. He’d be thrilled.

    • Wait!!! Don’t click Buy yet. I just remembered which book I should recommend to you:

      It’s T.K.V Desikachar’s “The Heart of Yoga”.

      Desikachar is the son of Krishnamacharya, who was also the teacher of Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar. But that’s not the reason to buy the book.

      It’s that this is the clearest and least pompous (yes, the other books can get pompous) intro to Yoga. AND…

      … and it has the Yoga Sutras in the back, as an appendix.

      Which is the right way to read them, if you ask me. The sutras are short. It’s the long-winded commentaries by other people that make them into a book. But Desikachar keeps his commentary quite short and to the point, so you actually have a chance at getting through them and the re-reading the ones that speak to you.

      Googling Anne Kerr Kennedy now….

      And Jol, if you’re here, you played your part in turning me into a life-long amateur historian. thanks for that!

  14. As an Indian I know of patanjali as the one who codified yoga and I think had something to do with Ayurveda as well. Did not realize that he had such a influence. Thanks for enlightening me.

    • Yup, you got it right: He “authored” (in the same way that Homer and Shakespeare authored, ie we’re not totally sure whether it was a team or a man) three works:
      – one on yoga
      – one on Ayurveda
      – and one on Sanskrit grammar

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s