The Yoga in Transformation Conference 1 (Maas and Wujastyk)

This conference aimed at bridging the gap between yoga practicioners and yoga researchers, providing the former “convenient access to information on high-level research”. Did it really fulfil this task?


The conference’s papers were —as far as I can judge— excellent. People like Philipp Maas, Dominik Wujastyk and David White (more details on the speakers and on their papers’ abstracts can be found in the program, here) managed to be accessible to all audiences while at the same time engaging in complex topics without oversimplifying them nor making them more “attractive”. They did not disguise problems and did not pay homage to an alleged unitary “great tradition of Yoga”. On the contrary, already the first two speakers stressed the complex relations between Buddhism-»Yoga«-“Hinduism”. (What follows are just my summaries, all mistakes are mine and not the authors’.)

Philipp Maas had the honour and the task to hold the first talk (after a long series of welcome addresses) and managed to bring his audience from nowhere to the point that (as first shown by Johannes Bronkhorst) the Pātañjala Yoga Śāstra (henceforth PYŚ) is a unitary text made of sūtras and commentary written by the same author and as part of the same project, although he may have reused previous materials (including short sūtras). He stressed the ascetic (śramaṇic, to use again Bronkhorst’s terminology) elements in the PYŚ, including the idea of karman and rebirth and the ascetic strategy out of them (some aṅgas are found also in Buddhist texts as ancillaries of the eightfold path, and although samādhi is the only shared item, both lists serve the same purpose of preparing for mokṣa). He then focused on a specific problem, i.e., the alleged definition of āsana in the sūtra 2.46 sthirasukham āsanam. Maas persuasively showed that the sūtras has to be understood together with the following one and that, thus, sthirasukham is not a predicate of āsana but only an adjective. The final meaning of the two sūtras would be something like (my translation) “A posture which is steadily easy arises by means of relaxation of effort or by merging meditatively in the infinity” (sthirasukham āsanaṃ prayatnaśaithilya-ānantyasamāpattibhyām, the Bhāṣya clarifies the between the two alternatives and the bhavati at the end.).

Dominik Wujastyk has been, as usual, a fascinating speaker (you can read his whole paper here). He showed the Buddhist prehistory of some key terms in the Yogasūtras, which would, without such a background just sound bizarre or ununderstandable. A couple of examples:

anubhūtaviṣaya-asampramoṣaḥ smṛtiḥ (YS, samādhipāda 11)

defines smṛti ‘memory’ as the asampramoṣa of experienced contents. The Bhāṣya does not explain asampramoṣa (perhaps it was obvious?). Vācaspati connects it with the root muṣ– ‘to steal’ and glosses it with asteya ‘not stealing’, which however makes little or no sense at all. Wujastyk rather connects it with the term sampramoṣa, widely used in Buddhist Sanskrit (see Edgerton’s dictionary of Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit) is the sense of ‘letting go’. Thus, the YS 1.11 would mean “memory is not losing the sense impressions that have been experienced”.

sthirasukham āsanam prayatnaśaithilyānantyasamāpattibhyām (YS 1.46–47)

(About which see above, in my summary of Maas’ presentation.) ānantya is connected with the Buddhist tradition of meditation. In fact, the Buddhist jhānas or āyatanas, collectively described as samāpatti in the Ariyaparyesanasutta (the earliest biography of the Buddha according to Wujastyk), are a set of eight meditations. The 5th and 6th are the ākāśa-ānantya-āyatana (in later texts called samāpatti) and the vijñāna-ānantya-āyatana. The reading ānantya is also confirmed by the more conservative manuscripts and by Śaṅkara’s commentary (which describes meditation on infinity). By contrast, Vācaspati —who was, Wujastyk maintains, not a practictioner himself— changed the text into anantasamāpatti and described it as a meditation on the mythological snake Ananta. This interpretation has been followed by many translators (from Woods 1914 to Bryant 2009).

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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