Sanskrit Tidbits-11:Rules, Formulae and Aphorisms


Shri Bibek Debroy

With sandhi, our understanding of Sanskrit has crossed a threshold.  Let me take tidbits to a different level too and talk about सूत्र.  That word means a thread.  But it also means rule, formula and aphorism.  Several things had to be memorized and it easy to memorize if something is pithy and crisp.  However, this also meant a सूत्र isn’t easy to understand.  It is too crisp and pithy.  I have always said one should read the original and try to understand the meaning oneself.  But this is difficult with a सूत्र.  You need commentaries and there were commentaries on commentaries.  The most common form of a commentary is a भाष्य.  That explains the सूत्र word for word and is quite detailed.  Sometimes, you will find a वृत्ति. This is like a भाष्य, but doesn’t always go word for word and can be a little less detailed.  There can also be a वर्त्तिका. A भाष्य has stuck to the सूत्र word for the word.  But in the process, someone might have felt that everything wasn’t very clear.  A वर्त्तिका is used to fill those gaps.  We now come to ब्याखान, also known as टीका.  I may not always be interested in a word for word explanation of a सूत्र.  That’s for scholars.  I am interested more in a general easy-flowing translation in everyday language.  That’s what ब्याखान or टीका is.  Finally, there is टिप्पनी.  This is usually meant for scholars, since it only focuses on a few key words and doesn’t try to explain everything.  Don’t be scared at all these different types of commentaries and sub-commentaries.  To understand a सूत्र, you will need one or the other.  Your knowledge of Sanskrit alone won’t suffice.  By the way, it was probably called a सूत्र, because by that time, writing had begun.  Those pieces of palm leaf were tied down with thread.

Let me now turn to योग, since I have referred to my yoga teacher earlier.  The word yoga originally meant yoke or union and can therefore mean union between the human soul (atman or jivatman) and the supreme soul (brahman or paramatman).  Each chapter in BG is titled “yoga” and the BG talks of karma yoga, bhakti yoga and jnana yoga.  However, there is a narrower sense in which the word योग is used. In Chapter 9, the BG calls this raja yoga.  The raja yoga tradition goes back to Patanjali.  There was a Patanjali who authored the yoga sutras and there was a Patanjali who authored Mahabhashya, a text on grammar, apart from assorted commentaries.  We don’t know whether these two Patanjalis were the same or not.  Debates go on among scholars.  The Patanjali who authored the yoga sutras probably lived in the 3rd or 2nd century BCE.  He didn’t author these in the sense of writing down something completely original.  These practices were probably floating around and he compiled them.

My yoga teacher doesn’t know this.  But Patanjali’s raja yoga is ashtanga.  It has eight limbs. These are यम (restraint), नियम (control, the following of rules), आसन (posture), प्राणायाम (control of the breath), प्रत्याहार (withdrawal), धारणा (concentration on an object), ध्यान (meditation) and समाधि (trance).  Today’s indiscriminate practice of yoga has reduced yoga to asana and pranayama.

If you try to read Patanjali’s yoga sutras on your own, you will get confused.  There are 196 sutras and they aren’t neatly divided into this eight-fold classification.  51 sutras are about Samadhi and the yoga sutras start with these.  Then there are 55 sutras on sadhana, the techniques of yoga, that is, the ashtanga yoga part.  You next have 56 sutras on vibhuti or powers.  Finally, there are 34 sutras on kaivalya, which can loosely be interpreted as trance.  That is, the 196 yoga sutras are divided into four parts, each part called a pada.  If you remember, a pada means a quarter. Many people have written commentaries on the yoga sutras.  For example, yoga bhashya, which is extremely old, is attributed to Vedavyasa himself.  Adi Shankaracharya wrote one.  For a more recent version, you might want to check out I.K. Taimni’s “The Science of Yoga”. This link  has a translation, but without the Sanskrit.  This link will give you the Sanskrit and this one will give you the corresponding English translation.  I especially like the sanskritdocuments one. Did you know that Swami Vivekananda also wrote about Patanjail’s yoga sutras?  You will find it in his monograph “Raja Yoga”.

Let me illustrate why you need a commentary for sutras.  Take the ashtanga yoga business.  In 2.29 of the yoga sutras, you will find यमनियमासनप्राणायामप्रत्याहारधारणाध्यानसमाधोऽष्टाबङ्गानि.  Before you began to learn Sanskrit, this would have put you off.  Not only do you know a little bit of Sanskrit now, you know sandhi and how to break things up.  Therefore, for this, you don’t really need the translation, “The eight limbs of Union are self-restraint in actions, fixed observance, posture, regulation of energy, mind-control in sense engagements, concentration, meditation, and realization.”  But let’s take it a little bit further down, 2.33 to be precise. This says वितर्कबाधेन प्रतिपक्षभावनम्.  The translation is, “When improper thoughts disturb the mind, there should be constant pondering over the opposites.”  Despite the translation, it is not clear what “opposites” are.  I need a commentary, some kind of explanation.  I won’t tell you what “opposites” means.  There is a BG translation going on simultaneously and you will find the expression in that context too.

Now that we have begun to delve into sutras, a new world opens up before us.

I am a bit worried.  I think today’s tidbits may have been a bit too heavy.  Therefore, I am leaving you with a shloka that has nothing to do with sutras.  I don’t want you to give me the meaning either.  I will give you the meaning next week.  Tell me what is distinctive about this shloka.  What do you notice?  I repeat, nothing to do with sutras.  Will tell you the answer next week.

वारणागगभीरा सा साराभीगगणारवा।

कारितारिवधा सेना नासेधावरितारिका

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