The author has carefully reviewed the primary sources of yoga, including the major historical commentaries, in a painstaking attempt to provide a thorThe author has carefully reviewed the primary sources of yoga, including the major historical commentaries, in a painstaking attempt to provide a thorough intellectual background and analysis of Patanjali’s often-abstruse yoga sutras. He has done a remarkable job, but one that has fundamental shortcomings.
A commendable point is the author’s own philosophical outlook, surfacing throughout the book in snippets of criticism of the consumerist conception of yoga in the West—which is indeed an utter distortion and travesty. But a book of academic significance must be held against higher standards of scholarship, and the author’s acknowledgment that it mostly targets the general reader is irrelevant when the flaws can be misleading and lead to an essential misinterpretation of the subject matter.
One of the issues that plague this book is the author’s almost uncritical assessment of yoga as a theistic philosophy. Bryant acknowledges unequivocally that the avowed cornerstone of Patanjali’s yoga, the samkhya philosophy of Kapila, is non-theistic, if not outright atheistic. He fails to provide, however, an explanation as to how an atheistic interpretation of nature vis a vis samkhya has radically shifted into a theistic one vis a vis yoga, a philosophy that has organic links with samkhya, to the degree of often being considered as its offspring.
The author indirectly and unconvincingly attributes this radical shift from “atheism” to “theism” to Patanjali’s eclecticism. But such an interpretation may well stem, at least partly, from his own superficial knowledge of Indian history. Another reason, minor yet crucial, is the misinterpretation of the term “isvara,” which occurs in the yoga sutras as “God” or rather a “personal God”—a rampant interpretation that precedes Bryant, if that can be an excuse.
The author also defends the integrity of the Yoga sutras as they have reached us, discounting the work of highly reputable specialists in the last century who have questioned the integrity not only of the Yoga sutras, but the Samkhya-Karika, the Bhagavad Gita, and all major texts of Indian antiquity. While he does not delve into his reasons for rejecting them—if we assume he is thoroughly familiar with them—his own position is tenuous at best. That some of these disputed sections complement the core of Patanjali’s sutras (the second half of chapter 2, and chapter 3 only of a four-chapter book) is only as good a reason as stating that the interpolated first chapter of John, at a later date, which equates a historical person with God, beautifully complements the evangelist’s gospel, and the last 12 verses of Mark, also later interpolated by devious clerics to create the fictitious account of the Ascension, beautifully complements what precedes it. Such a posteriori apologetics have lived their age in Christianity, despite the fact that many ideologically motivated theologians still uphold the integrity of the Gospels, but apparently it is far from exhausting itself in Indology, whose original texts of reference are equally, if not even more, corrupted and interpolated than the Christian scriptures.
Had the author been more familiar with Indian history, he would have been appalled by the degree of revision, corruption, and interpolation that has swiped all ancient Indian texts throughout the ages at the hands of the Brahmins, the agents of power, who have done so to institute their own ideology and theology, and would have had an altogether opposite starting point as to where the burden of proof should lie. This may entail rewriting the entire book—a work that may take a full lifetime—if, that is, Bryant, a promising scholar despite his shortcomings, proves capable of getting out of the hole he has dug for himself and does not yield to a whirlwind of self-justifications in defense of a heavily invested tower in the clouds.
The foreword, by Iyengar, is worthless as it serves merely commercial purposes for this expensive paperback. The endorsement by Larson is disappointing, even if he qualifies the book as being geared for “the thoughtful but non-specialist general reader,” and seems to be but lip service to support a colleague in the field. To the best of my recollection (from over two decades ago), Larson is acutely aware of the interpolations which occur in the major ancient Indian texts, and has widely quoted or referenced Garbe, the German scholar and a pioneer in the field of Indian textual criticism.