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The "Yoga Sutra of Patanjali": A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books) [Hardcover]

David Gordon White
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

25 May 2014 Lives of Great Religious Books

Consisting of fewer than two hundred verses written in an obscure if not impenetrable language and style, Patanjali's Yoga Sutra is today extolled by the yoga establishment as a perennial classic and guide to yoga practice. As David Gordon White demonstrates in this groundbreaking study, both of these assumptions are incorrect. Virtually forgotten in India for hundreds of years and maligned when it was first discovered in the West, the Yoga Sutra has been elevated to its present iconic status--and translated into more than forty languages--only in the course of the past forty years.

White retraces the strange and circuitous journey of this confounding work from its ancient origins down through its heyday in the seventh through eleventh centuries, its gradual fall into obscurity, and its modern resurgence since the nineteenth century. First introduced to the West by the British Orientalist Henry Thomas Colebrooke, the Yoga Sutra was revived largely in Europe and America, and predominantly in English. White brings to life the improbable cast of characters whose interpretations--and misappropriations--of the Yoga Sutra led to its revered place in popular culture today. Tracing the remarkable trajectory of this enigmatic work, White's exhaustively researched book also demonstrates why the yoga of India's past bears little resemblance to the yoga practiced today.


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (25 May 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691143773
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691143774
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 11.4 x 3.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 89,378 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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"White's book, a contribution to Princeton's Lives of Great Religious Books series, delves into the short collection of verses that many contemporary practitioners believe--erroneously--to be the original, definitive guide to ancient yoga philosophy. A scholar of comparative religions, White conducted sharp and deep research to tell the story of the rise, fall, and modern-day resurgence of the 195 verses attributed to the author/compiler Patanjali, who lived in either the first century BCE or the fourth century CE."--Publishers Weekly

"White's scholarly read is a fascinating presentation of the rise, fall, and rediscovery of the Yoga Sutra. . . . It will appeal to those looking to expand their knowledge. Concise, yet showing fresh research, this book is well suited for academic and comprehensive yoga collections."--Ajoke Kokodoko, Library Journal

"Engaging, challenging, myth-busting, and completely au courant, weaving into the debates on cultural appropriation, colonization, and the reinvention of yoga and South Asian spiritual practice in the postmodern west."--Sean Feit, Nadalila.org

"A wildly entertaining tour-de-force of deconstructive research."--Matthew Remski, Reality Sandwich

"A lively account of this sutra's unlikely history and how it has variously been interpreted, reinterpreted, ignored, and hailed. The colorful characters on these pages include Vivekananda and Krishnamacharya, two giants in modern yoga, as well as literary figures such as T.S. Eliot. There is also Alberuni, a Muslim scientist and scholar who translated a commentary on the Yoga Sutra a thousand years ago, and the outrageous Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who fused the principles of the Yoga Sutra with Western ideas of the occult."--Shambhala Sun

"The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali undertakes an exhaustive, scholarly history of the titular work of ancient Indian philosophy, lightened by author David Gordon White's provocative wit. . . . White's in-depth examination demonstrates how scriptural exegesis often reveals as much about the worldview and priorities of its authors as it does the wisdom of the works they interpret."--Max Zahn, Tricycle

From the Inside Flap

"The who's who of how Patanjali's Yoga Sutra came to be, this thoughtful and well-developed biography gives an in-depth view of each contributor to this once minor, now major philosophical player in the Western yoga world. I will keep this beautiful work in my library to refer back to as I continue to deepen my exploration of this profound spiritual masterpiece. A must-read for any serious academic or practitioner."--Melanie Salvatore-August, YogaWorks mentor teacher, author, yoga and mindfulness practitioner

"David Gordon White's unique knowledge of both classical yoga texts and contemporary religious practice in India and the West gives him a unique insight into the troubled question of the relevance (or irrelevance) of Patanjali's masterwork to contemporary postural yoga. Written with White's characteristic verve, rich in fascinating historical documentation, this is an often hilarious and always exciting story. Anyone seriously interested in yoga in any of its many forms, from its profound philosophy to its often life-changing practice, must read this book."--Wendy Doniger, author of The Hindus: An Alternative History and On Hinduism

"Contemporary yoga teachers and gurus have mistakenly made the Yoga Sutra into the ubiquitous foundation of all yoga practice, stretching and extrapolating it into a complete manual for living. Now the man behind the curtain is exposed. White mines the truth from hearsay and stands contemporary yoga beliefs on their head. This remarkable, colorful, and engaging book will rattle a lot of cages and hopefully enlighten the enlighteners. I highly recommend it as required reading for anyone interested in yoga."--Ganga White, author of Yoga Beyond Belief and founder of the White Lotus Foundation

"David Gordon White is not only a magnificent writer and a brilliant scholar. He is perhaps our best modern interpreter of Indian yogic traditions."--Reza Aslan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam

"Elegant, erudite, and crystal clear. White shows how the Yoga Sutra, which has taken on iconic significance with respect to the practice of modern yoga, has been completely misunderstood and manipulated to mean different things over the course of the past millennium. This book will force anyone who thinks they know what the Yoga Sutra signifies to completely change their view on the subject."--Joseph S. Alter, author of Yoga in Modern India

"A very engaging read. White's book is provocative in all the right places."--Martha Ann Selby, coeditor of Tamil Geographies: Cultural Constructions of Space and Place in South India

"The best book available on the Yoga Sutra. It is a work of original research that will greatly interest scholars and captivate general readers. White performs a great service with this book."--Donald S. Lopez, Jr., author of "The Tibetan Book of the Dead": A Biography


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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars 25 July 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
essential addition for anyone interested in erudite, unbiased history of yoga.
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Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ESSENTIAL READNG ON YOGA HISTORY & PHILOSOPHY 8 Jun 2014
By Mark Stephens - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Author, scholar, and yogi, David Gordan White has given us several deeply insightful (and I must say highly enjoyable to read) works on yoga history and philosophy, including Yoga in Practice, Tantra in Practice, The Alchemical Body, Kiss of the Yogini and others.

Here, White combines his usual impeccable scholarship and highly accessible writing style to offer a deep meditation on the origins, development, and extraordinarily diverse array of transliterations and commentaries on The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which along with the Bhagavad-Gita is the most read ancient book on yoga.

If you read twenty-five different books on the Yoga Sutras, you are likely to discover twenty-five very different - even conflicting - interpretations. On deeper study you are are likely to start asking questions such as, "who was Patanjali?" or "why does this or that particular author offer such different views?" or "how does this pertain to my personal practice or my teaching?"

White untangles these and other questions, and along the way the reader comes to appreciate that most of what we have previously learned about Patanjali's ancient set of 195 brief aphorisms on yoga practice, method, and benefits is extremely distorted, more in service to one's contemporary brand or power in the yoga community than to excavating or sharing what insights might have been in the original writings.

If you've ever wondered about the origins or veracity of ancient yoga writings, if you've pondered the relationship between the received wisdom of tradition and your practice or teaching today, this book is most definitely for you. It's deep yet also a delightful page turner, taking us up and down and all across India, back-and-forth from India to the West, to the Muslim world, and into the heart of the practice.

NOTE: If you do not have an open mind, if you cling to the teachings of a guru as the source of truth, this book might be terribly upsetting. Read it at the risk of further opening to a practice that liberates you from myths, distortions, and boldface lies, that opens you to a yoga practice that's about awakening to greater clarity.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It is about time! 12 Jun 2014
By An interested party - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I always thought that the modern reverence for the "Yoga Sutras" and Patanjali were misplaced and that the "Yoga Sutras" were at odds with the practice of modern postural yoga rather than it's source. White shows exactly why in this excellent book. If you are a yoga teacher, you need to read this book. (Actually, his other books are good too.)
5.0 out of 5 stars A Riveting, Engaging History of Ideas 29 July 2014
By The Peripatetic Reader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
David Gordon White has a rare talent in explaining intricate historical facts or complicated philosophical doctrines in such a manner that they can be easily understood by the general reader, and not trivialize the content. That is the characteristic of every book he has written, and his new book, The Yoga Sutras, A Biography, is no exception.

The undercurrent of White's book is that the Yoga Sutras have been the subject of many commentaries, used as a model of personal and professional conduct, and critiqued by a host of philosophers and pandits, but rarely understood. White documents how since its "discovery" the sutras have been more the reflection of the persons who popularized its teachings, and a reflection of their times, rather than understood (or misunderstood) on their own merits. Historical events since its revival has indicated that all who have read, studied or practiced its teachings have done so for their own purposes, regardless to what the sutras do or do not represent.

This is a "biography" of the sutras, however, so it traces how its teachings were used and abused over the centuries, until they drifted into abject obscurity. It was at that time that they were "discovered" by H.T. Colebrooke, an accountant working for the India East Company. All this may sound like Euro-Centrism, but White provides hard data on how unpopular the text was by the number of manuscripts -- or lack thereof -- found by Colebrooke. Colebrooke's discovery in turn began a round of use and abuse, a slew of commentaries and identification with the sutras.

White dispels myths and explains how yoga arrived at its present form. The yoga we all know, love, and practice bears little, if any, resemblance to the Yoga Sutras. White describes the yoga of Patanjali as "Buddhism with Isvara." The yoga of Patanjali owed more to the Samkhya philosophy, where the goal of yoga was not union with the Supreme Self -- that was another construct from Vedanta -- but the isolation of the Spirit, purusa, from nature. The yoga of asanas and postures is a mixture of tantric techniques and practices. The contemporary practice of yoga is the creation of Sri Krishnamacharya.

One point needs clarification. White indicates that the first English translation of the sutras, by Rajendralala Mitra, and featuring the commentary of Bhoga Rajas, both of which are discussed in this book, is "long out of print" and he had to obtain a copy from the inter-library system of Calcutta to discover its contents. Actually, this title is indeed in print and is readily available from a book company specializing in reprints of out-of-print titles, and can be luckily be found on this website. The translation and commentary is as good as White indicates in his book.

White can be forgiven for this oversight. His book is thoroughly enjoyable. It doesn't matter how many times you have read the Yoga Sutras or any of its many commentaries, White's book will expand your knowledge and appreciation of this small but mighty work.
4.0 out of 5 stars "the who's who of the how YSP came to be" 6 July 2014
By Melanie Salvatore-August - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
"The who's who of how Patanjali's Yoga Sutra came to be, this thoughtful and well-developed biography gives an in-depth view of each contributor to this once minor, now major philosophical player in the Western yoga world. I will keep this beautiful work in my library to refer back to as I continue to deepen my exploration of this profound spiritual masterpiece. A must-read for any serious academic or practitioner."
--Melanie Salvatore-August, YogaWorks mentor teacher, author, yoga and mindfulness practitioner
5.0 out of 5 stars required reading for the modern yogi 30 July 2014
By Goldie - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Modern yogi? After reading this book this term may be an oxymoron. Lots more reading to do. Thank you for laying out this argument. It is highly enjoyable, laughable and enlightening!
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