Book Club: A key treatise for the philosophy of yoga, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is a foundational handbook for millions of yoga practitioners. Little is known however about the text’s author, Al-Biruni, whose service to Indology is invaluable.
The translation is a brilliant cross-cultural interpretation of a key text of yoga philosophy [New York University Press]
“Liberation may be attainted by devotion… All of this is directed exclusively towards God, in order to receive from Him the felicity of eternal bliss,” as ‘The Yoga Sutras Of Patanjali’ by Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni goes.
While we tend to think of Yoga in terms of its ancient Indian origin or its new age western-spread globalised variant, one thing we definitely don’t tend to do is associate interest in Yoga with the medieval Middle East or the Arab world.
Yet contrary to our modern perspective, the Arab region has a long history of interacting with spiritual traditions from other parts of the world. The famous Hadith quote from the Prophet Muhammad “seek knowledge even if you have to go as far as China,” doesn’t limit itself to the types of knowledge being sought.
“Concise, readable, understandable and yet steeped in a wisdom that has echoed throughout the ages, The Yoga Sutras will challenge us as it challenges those who came before us”
Born in Beruni in present-day Uzbekistan in 973, Persian thinker Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni was known in his lifetime as a great scientist with works on astronomy, physics, natural sciences and mathematics among other things. He is also known as the father of comparative religion and the founder of Indology.
Curious about everything and the world around him, his visit to India triggered an interest in exploring its history and traditions.
Like many, he was drawn to the teachings of the Patanjali also known as Gonardiya, an ancient Hindu sage who authored many works in Sanskrit including The Yoga Sutras.
Al-Biruni’s translation of the Indic work into Arabic gave medieval audiences a glimpse into the philosophy of yoga and now Library of Arabic Literature of New York University Press by Mario Kozah gives English-speaking bibliophiles a highly readable version of Al-Biruni’s work.
The purpose of spirituality is liberation as is the pursuit of knowledge, reflecting upon the similarities between Sufism, Christian sects and the ancient Greeks, Al-Biruni opines, “They all, without exception, maintain the belief that souls are bound in the world and tangled in its tethers, and that only those who reach the ultimate goal of liberation through strenuous efforts are freed from these and achieve a permanent afterlife.”
Indeed Al-Biruni believes that all knowledge is so essential that, “for one of the ugliest crimes and worst sins is to withhold learning, because what is written in ink always contain a new information that, if known, will either draw some benefit or prevent some harm.” As so begins to quest into The Yoga Sutras.
The Sutras take on the form of a question-and-answer format with someone posing questions to Patanjali.
The questioner has sought out Patanjali help in trying to inform others about the world of knowledge and to fight uncertainty and doubt. Patanjali says the tool he must employ is a praxis or an understanding of underlying causes and what is responsible for it, “One part of praxis resembles action, while the other resembles the abandonment of action. When you understand this matter, you will discover the knowledge within it.”
In other words, a praxis can encompass both cause and its opposites, to understand their relations with one another is part of understanding the issue critically. Indeed for Patanjali the material world and the human body are at best illusionary and temporal, the true essence of an individual is their soul and the goal of knowledge is to make the seeker aware of this reality.
Once they reach a state of awareness they can then start to distinguish between their material being and their spiritual one- after this is done they can then prepare their soul for the liberation from this world. Failure to do this will lead to a repeat of the life cycles through things like reincarnation and the soul will have to undergo it all over again.
Liberation in Patanjali view also means breaking with this cycle and patterns. Some of these ideas will resonate with those familiar with Neoplatonic thought as well as Islamic teachings which view the soul as temporally imprisoned here on earth.
While these different traditions are not the same, they do have, to borrow Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept, a kind of family resemblance to them. All see the material world as illusionary and our true selves can only be realised when removed from this world and united with ultimate reality.
NYU’s translation of Al-Biruni’s The Yoga Sutras will likely become a vital resource for both students of the history of ideas and a classic among Yoga practitioners who may not have access to the Arabic version. Concise, readable, understandable and yet steeped in a wisdom that has echoed throughout the ages, The Yoga Sutras will challenge us as it challenges those who came before us.
Usman Butt is a multimedia television researcher, filmmaker and writer based in London. Usman read International Relations and Arabic Language at the University of Westminster and completed a Master of Arts in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.
Follow him on Twitter: @TheUsmanButt