Come on Patanjali, did you really mean that about the body?

ON April 4, 2014

by Gretchen Mehlhoff

Alright, It’s true that the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali contain a deep and vast understanding of existence, consciousness and truth; however, it is still a system of thought put down into words and concretized into form by a human hand (or human hands, we are not sure if Patanjali was one man or many). “it is not known exactly when Sri Patanjali lived, or even if he was a single person rather than several persons using the same title. Estimates of the date of the Sutras range from 5000 B.C. to 300 A.D.” (The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Swami Satchidananda, Kindle Edition Location 120).

So, next question: Divine omniscience or a whole lot of really deep wisdom and understanding? Maybe they are the same thing. In his foreword to Light on the Yoga Sutras, Godfrey Devereaux’s first line refers to the Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as the “bible” of yoga. In the following introduction, Iyengar says of Patanjali:  “if God is considered the seed of all knowledge (sarvajna bijan), Patanjali is all knower, all wise (sarvajnan), of all knowledge.”

It’s possible to both embrace and question every system of thought, every philosophy and every “word of god” with the heart of both a seeker and a scientist. It seems more difficult to question ideas held to be “divine omniscience.” However, there seems more natural room for thoughtful inquiry and questioning if those ideas are accepted as deep insights of wisdom pointing to the absolute truth but still containing the residue of cultural and historical contexts. In this way, the word becomes living, the word finds a place to take root in the fertile ground of our actual lives, it gains a soulful context.

Now, on to one example of a “questionable” sutra. Keep in mind that by questioning the sutras, I don’t mean to throw any of them out entirely.  By questioning, I mean to work with them, to extract the wisdom and the medicine needed to heal each particular individual as well as to heal each society and culture. Alright, here’s an easy one, the controversial Sutra II.40. I’ve had a bone to pick with this sutra for quite some time. Until I began writing this, I had no idea this one was so infamous.

II.40 “From purification arises disgust for one’s own body and for contact with other bodies.” – Swami Satchidananda.

No doubt, this is considered the most precise translation of this sutra. The glaring problem with this interpretation lies in the word jugupsa, whichliterally means disgust. From the context of the broad society that we call America, we are gravely dis-embodied people with strong echoes of puritanical loathing and condemnation of the body rippling through our collective psyche. This repressed anti-body ethos manifests in many ways: objectification of women, sexual abuse, sexual scandals, frigidity, infidelity, amplified violent and aggressive behavior, spiritual bypassing (trying to escape through spirituality to avoid the sticky, often painful worldly relative truth), workaholism, obesity, eating disorders, a disconnection from our food, our water and our land… you get the idea. Part of our healing as Americans involves inhabiting our bodies in a loving way that re-connects our consciousness to our place in the whole complex system that each one of us is a part of. So, for a contemporary American yoga practitioner, emphasizing, encouraging and valuing bodily disgust presents numerous dangers; in short, it’s just plain harmful.

II.40 “Cleanliness of body and mind develops disinterest in contact with others for self-gratification.” – B.K.S. Iyengar.

This interpretation also presents problems such as aversion and escaping, (i.e. practitioners suspended in the ether of lofty spiritual ideals that keep the spiritual truth and the worldly truth separated). Self-gratification is defined (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary) as “the act of pleasing oneself or of satisfying one’s desires.” Maybe, according to Patanjali, we should only have sex for pro-creation and never solely for pleasure and loving union with our chosen mortal beloved? Come on. There are healthy desires, desires that do not cause suffering. The desire to love and grow with a partner seems both earthy and “spiritual”; as does the desire to rejoice in our bodies within the boundaries of relationships that do not dissipate our energy (however you define, redefine and refine those relationships). For many of us, it takes time and mistakes in order to separate out unhealthy from healthy desires when it comes to attraction and creating a healthy partnership. Maybe this translation could be re-written “Cleanliness of body and mind develops disinterest in contact with others which will dissipate our energy.” Allow people the space to make some “mistakes” and to learn from experience, you know, the same kind of “mistakes” that Siddhartha (the guy who became the Buddha) made. As much as these saints and enlightened teachers would like to spare us their falls, personal experience is often the best teacher, possibly really the only one. Most of us still have to live their mistakes and use their path to help find our way out.

II.40 “From cleanliness arises protection for one’s own body and non-contamination by others.” – Gregor Maehl.

I’d say he’s on the right track. But still, I think it could end at this: “From cleanliness arises protection for one’s own body. [period!]” With the understanding that contact with certain activities and individuals compromises the health and wellbeing of our bodies. Most importantly, we can learn to feel our way around our activities and the people that surround us, cultivating clear body-based somatic discernment to choose right-action. We don’t have to get all stuck in our heads thinking about it too much. Do we need to freak out and create vigilant practitioners on the lookout for “contaminated” others? I don’t think so. Not so helpful.

II.40 “Through purity [he gains] distance towards his own limbs [and also] [the desire for] non-contamination by others.” – Georg Feuerstein.

This is so close to Maehl’s translation. But again, the emphasis on “distance” from our bodies, on maintaining a certain “on-guardedness” with our bodies, brings up the same problems mentioned in the previous translation. Moreover, for the countless people working to overcome trauma in their lives and learning to let go of “victim” and/or “survivor” identities, this idea of needing to be “guarded” with their body sends the message that they need to remain “on-guard”, which for these individuals usually manifests as a hyper-vigilance. It’s true that both our own behavior and other people can harm us. Through cultivating loving kindness towards our body, we learn to not choose those things. We can develop the ability to choose by listening to the natural intelligence held in the body, the sensations that we call gut instincts and intuition.

So, here’s my non-translation, or rather my adaptation of this controversial sutra. Personally, I would ditch the part about cleanliness as well.

Through the letting go of actions and attachments that dissipate one’s energy, one develops loving care for the body as a vessel.” – Gretchen Mehlhoff.

Coming ‘round full circle with all this: We don’t actually know who Patanjali was. Many consider “him” to be “all-knowing”. Regardless of whether or not Patanjali is indeed “all-knowing”, how do we get to the perennial truth that is often buried beneath layers of out-dated or inapplicable historical and/or social contexts? I suggest that we can begin to do this through identifying where we need to heal and grow as individuals and societies, and, in turn, interpreting the sutras just like we are concocting a medicinal elixir; create an understanding of the sutra that contains just what we need to promote the necessary healing and growth. This way, we become the “jungle physician.” Different people might actually need to interpret the same sutra differently to find their medicine. And- in one, two or 20 years- the same person may need to redefine their understanding again to foster their continued (as Iyengar would say) “involution.”

Wisdom isn’t given to us by anyone, not even Patanjali; we have to earn it. We have to take the teachings we are working with into our hearts, turn them over and over inside, let some of it go and add a bit to it, re-work and collaborate. It’s alchemy.

Read more from Gretchen: freethoughtsgm.wordpress.com

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One thought on “Come on Patanjali, did you really mean that about the body?

  1. Patanjali’s words, like those of all humans, are full of wisdom and foolishness. Like all of us, at some point in his childhood or early adulthood, he realized that he was thinking; another day he realized he would die. These thoughts, in the the context of his culture and experiences, led him to the same conclusion that most humans come to: I am a special being, a divine spirit, something greater and more permanent and wiser than a mere animal. I’m not just a weird-looking monkey.

    So what am I to do with this body?

    This body–that desires things, that kills animals and plants to keep itself alive, that sings and dances, that pukes and farts, that has weird moles and hairs, that is never strong enough, never beautiful enough–this body is destined to become a lump of rotting flesh. How can I free myself from this yoke?

    Maybe death itself is liberation. What a seductive idea! I will just continue to exist and learn and grow, passing from one body vessel to another. Or maybe when I die, I go to a special place, where all spirits live, finally free of their bodies. Maybe there is a great universal spirit, a conveniently benevolent, omniscient, omnipotent being that I can hook up with. Union with god will surely free me of this body.

    Whether I believe in reincarnation, heaven, or union with god, I’ve figured out a way to be eternal. Yay! Now I just have to work this body to get there. I just need some rules to live by. Religion is quick to offer rules, rituals, and services to guarantee impermanence. One common religious approach is asceticism, which seems to be the path that Patanjali was describing.

    I am pure and divine. My body, on the other hand, wants to eat chocolate even if others have no food, have sex even if it means breaking hearts, take pleasure in the way plants and animals taste even if it means killing them. This body not only hurts other bodies, but also distracts me from my quest for immortality. So I need to reject those cravings, avoid those pleasures, to purify this disgusting body. Hence Sutra II.40.

    But what if, when my body dies, I die? What if god has decided that there is no heaven, no reincarnation, and that it’s OK for human spirits to cease to exist? What if the union of mind and body is inescapable? What if the only way to be divine during this brief existence, is to practice ahimsa and compassion and kindness? What if we practice the yoga of no escape?

    What if I am my body?

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