Interpretation of Yoga Sūtra

Question: In class, I presented my translation of Yoga Sūtra 2.38, “Firmly established in celibacy, strength/power is attained.” The class brought up the topic of gender, stating that brahmacarya and vīrya are masculine oriented statements. Having read the commentaries, I explained that although this may be so, their meaning is really a sense of power, focus and strength that is developed from sexual restraint. The professor said I was not being true to the text and that I’m bringing my own interpretation into it. I was also told to translate the sūtras as completely separate from the commentaries. I don’t see how this is possible and feel that it would do injustice to the text. My concern is this objectivity that they are asking of me. How would you suggest dealing with this?

Answer: I will tell you a very good methodology of interpretation. In Sanskrit, words have three types of meaning, called primary (mukhya), indicated (lakṣaṇā) and suggested (vyañjanā).

This is very common knowledge for any Sanskrit scholar. So sometimes when a word is used it has its primary meaning and then includes more than that.

I will illustrate this with an example. Let’s suppose you are at home and your mother is arranging for breakfast in the backyard garden. She asks you, “Son, please be here and make sure the cat does not spoil the food.” You say, “Ok Mom,” and sit next to the food table. Suddenly a bird swoops down and wants to fly away with a piece of bread. You look at the bird and just watch how it takes the bread away and, in the process, tips the jug full of juice. Then comes your mom and becomes upset at you, ‘What are you doing? Why did you not chase the bird away?” You respond, “But mom, you told me to protect the food from cat and not from birds”. Your mom is furious.

Why? Because when she said, “Protect the food from the cat”, the word “cat” meant not only cat but also dog, bird or any other animal that could spoil the food. This is the lakṣaṇā or extended meaning of the word cat. So why didn’t she say, “Protect it from cats, dogs, birds, etc.”? This is because she wanted to be brief in her instruction and expected you to understand that she means any being that can spoil food.

So similarly, when sages write śāstra, especially sūtras, which are meant to be very concise, they may refer to only one gender and the other is understood, by lakṣaṇā.    

For instance, this is evident in the English word parent, which refers to both mom and dad. It is cognate with the Sanskrit word pitarau, which is the dual case of word pitri (meaning father). The complete word should be mātāpitarau. Mātā is dropped but the meaning of mātā is contained within pitarau.

But unfortunately, at present people have little knowledge and just want to find fault. This is very pitiable but what can be done? I face this problem all the time. So, don’t be frustrated. Just learn to answer them. Most people are just ignorant, proud, and loud. That is all. Be patient, don’t lose your temper; then they will gradually listen. 

5 thoughts on “Interpretation of Yoga Sūtra”

  1. Thank you for this instruction, Babaji. I had the exact same experience with my sanskrit teacher, who is an Ashtanga yoga teacher and PhD student of Advaitavad/Shankaracharya texts. She disagreed with my translation of Bhagavad-gita 6.5, wherein I followed our tradition and translated ‘atman’ as the mind. I showed her translations by Baladev Vidyabhusana and Visvanath Cakravarti, and she was bewildered. She could not understand how anyone could translate the verse that way. I did not attempt to tell her that it makes no sense to say, “For the Self is the friend and well as the enemy of the Self.” I did validate her attempt to teach us to translate literally but stated that it was also important for me to follow my own tradition. We agreed to disagree.

    1. Knowledge of Sanskrit is necessary to understand a Sanskrit text but it is not enough. You need something more besides knowledge of Sanskrit. It is good that you did not waste your time arguing. Just learn the language and respect her for that.

  2. If I may make a suggestion…

    In my experience the translator needs to A) understand the subject very, very, very well, B) understand the source language very well, and C) understand the destination language even better – very, very well.

    Try to find a word or phrase in the destination language that has similar implications (lakṣana) and connotations (vyañjana) as the source word in the original text. Then leave it to the English readers to make or not make the connections, just as the author did in the original language.

  3. One more thing – a question/ request:

    I would like to know a proper/inclusive concept for the brahmacarya -> vīrya statement.

    is it: “by self-control one gains strength”?

    1. One more thing – a question/ request:
      The word brahmacarya is a combination of brahman and carya. The word brahman here primarily means the Veda, and the word carya means practice.
      So the compound word brahmacarya means the practice or study of the Veda. This includes accepting a guru, studying from him, living with him, serving him, etc.
      As a concomitant result of this, one has to remain celibate. Thus brahmacarya became synonymous with celibacy.
      If you take the word brahman to mean Brahman, the Supreme Truth, then brahmacarya would mean the practice that is conducive to the realization of Brahman.

      > is it: “by self-control one gains strength”?

      Yes. Without sense control, there is no strength. Even for material success, one has to exercise sense control.

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