We all aspire to become immortal, but our confidence in our ability to attain immortality is overshadowed by our daily experience of death, destruction, and decay. We hope we will not die, but know our wish will not come true. The Yoga Sutra, the cardinal text of yoga philosophy and practice, tells us clearly that fulfillment of this wish is within the realm of human achievement. Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutra, is a living example of this truth.

Indian tradition identifies Patanjali as much more than the author of the Yoga Sutra. The genius of another text, the Mahabhashya, which he also authored, shows him to be an extraordinary soul. The story about how this monumental text came to be written and how it was preserved is a testament to Patanjali’s status as a siddha master beyond death, destruction, and decay.

Mahabhashya means “the great commentary.” On the surface, the subject of the Mahabhashya is Sanskrit grammar, but what makes this commentary so extraordinary is that in these pages, Patanjali takes us into the heart of mantra vidya. He describes the eternity of words, their oneness with meaning, and how a word and its inherent meaning flow together from the subtlest state until the word becomes audible and is identified with a particular language. Patanjali also describes the capacity of words to create a new reality. Thus, he enables us to comprehend the infallible transformative power of prayer and mantra sadhana.

Dictating the Mahabhashya: A Thousand Patanjalis

As is the case with many other masters, the time and place of Patanjali’s birth is shrouded in mystery. Both Eastern and Western traditions of scholarship, however, hold that Patanjali lived in the second century BC. The following story seems consistent with these academic conclusions.

In these pages, Patanjali takes us into the heart of mantra vidya.

After teaching and guiding students for a long time, one day Patanjali made a decision to undertake a thousand-year-long practice of meditation. Until then he had been teaching the Mahabhashya orally but decided to put it into writing before going into solitude. He discussed his plan for doing this with a thousand of his select students.

He explained that he would dictate the text to them while sitting behind a circular curtain. The dictation would be given under very strict conditions: The students must not attempt to see who was speaking from behind the curtain; they must focus only on what was being dictated to them and pay no heed to what was being dictated to those around them; and finally, they must not get up from their seats until the entire session was complete. Patanjali explained that a violation of any of these rules would have fatal consequences, and further, that a mistake committed by any one of the students would have dire consequences for all, because they all constituted one unified collective consciousness.

A big circular curtain was erected around Patanjali. With pen and paper in hand, all thousand students sat in a circle facing the curtain. As soon as Patanjali invoked his yoga shakti, each student felt as if he were sitting directly in front of the master. As the dictation began, the students had the overwhelming realization that there was more than one Patanjali behind the curtain: there were a thousand, one for each student.

The Catastrophe and Ensuing Dilemma

As fate would have it, after awhile, one of the students needed to go to the bathroom very badly so he got up and left. Another student could not manage his curiosity and lifted the curtain. There he saw a gigantic snake with a body of fire. With its thousand faces, it was giving a separate dictation to each student. In the next instant, the fire confined to the inside of the curtain spread and incinerated every student—all except the one who had left his seat.

Now he was fully aware of himself as a teacher, and his student stood before him.

Patanjali withdrew his yoga shakti and the radiant snake with its thousand heads was reabsorbed into his body. While the master was reflecting on the catastrophe brought about by the student’s careless behavior, he saw to his surprise that one student remained alive and unharmed.

When Patanjali learned that this student had left and returned only after the all-consuming fire had been reabsorbed into his body, he found himself facing a dilemma. By leaving his seat before the dictation was completed, this student had violated one of the conditions and therefore must reap the consequences and be incinerated like the other nine hundred and ninety-nine. But the other students had met their fate when Patanjali’s consciousness had transcended his individual human identity. Now he was fully aware of himself as a teacher, and his student stood before him. If the student were not incinerated, it would be a violation of the conditions. But if he did not protect his student from being incinerated, then Patanjali himself would be violating the fundamental principle of a teacher’s unconditional love, protection, and guidance.

The Ingenious Solution

After weighing all the pros and cons, Patanjali decided to help the student leave his body through spontaneous combustion. Then Patanjali passed on the complete knowledge of the Mahabhashya to this disembodied soul and assigned him a large banyan tree as a locus for his consciousness. Patanjali also blessed this student with unfailing memory and the capacity to communicate the knowledge of the Mahabhashya by writing on the leaves of the banyan tree. The blessing stipulated that as soon as he had transmitted the entire text in one uninterrupted session to someone with the stamina to keep his seat until the transmission was complete, the student would attain freedom from using the banyan tree as his body. Patanjali then vanished for a thousand years.

Patanjali is much more than the master who codified the Yoga Sutra.

Time passed as the student waited in the banyan tree. Eventually, a great yogi and scholar, Govinda Swami, arrived at the base of the tree. His intuition told him he had found the tree he had been seeking and the student realized Govinda Swami was the scholar he had been awaiting. Thus the transmission began. Through his sheer intention, the student engraved the Mahabhashya on the banyan leaves and dropped them before Govinda Swami, who in turn arranged them in the proper order. But as the leaves were dropping from the tree a herd of goats rushed in to eat the leaves. Govinda Swami tried his best to protect them, but alas, some of them were eaten. Thus, even in today’s printed version of The Mahabhashya, we find in brackets aja bhakshitam etat, “It was eaten by goats.”

This story demonstrates that Patanjali is much more than the master who codified the Yoga Sutra. He is the very embodiment of the Yoga Sutra and the long list of siddhis described therein. Patanjali’s immortality, his identity as the perennial source of knowledge, and his love for reviving wisdom and guiding students on the path leading to the summum bonum of life are further demonstrated when a thousand years later he returns as Govinda Pada to transmit the highest wisdom to Shankaracharya, the formal founder of our tradition.

More in this Series

Sages of Sri Vidya