Thursday, 31 October 2019

The Arabic Pātañjalayogaśāstra

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(Left) First page of the Kitāb Pātanğal written in the margin of the manuscript.
Credit: Köprülü Library, Istanbul.

At the dawn of the first millennium CE, the Muslim intellectual al-Bīrūnī (973-ca. 1050), a native from Khwarezm in today’s Uzbekistan, interpreted Patañjali’s treatise on yoga (ca. 350-450) into Arabic. Al-Bīrūnī’s book, titled Kitāb Pātanğal and literally meaning the Book of Patañjali, is the first known translation of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra into a non-Indic language.1

At the time, the north-western sub-continent, including parts of modern Afghanistan and Pakistan, was experiencing the second wave of Muslim incursions into its territory under the Ghaznavid dynasty. Amid these territorial disputes, al-Bīrūnī traveled with the court of the sultan Maḥmūd of Ghazna chiefly to north-western Panjab, gathered Sanskrit books and interacted with Indian thinkers.

Among these Sanskrit texts, he found a copy of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra and, more than five hundred years after its original compilation, made an interpretation of this Yoga text. He also translated a work related to Sāṅkhya. The yoga work rendered into Arabic is extant today in the form of a single text written on the margins of a manuscript (Ritter 1956: 165), while the Sāṅkhya work did not survive the test of time and only portions of it are found in another of al-Bīrūnī’s writing. These two works are the only translations he made of so-called orthodox Indian philosophical literature. The reasons why he chose to translate these works in particular remain obscure. Was he especially interested in the viewpoints elaborated by these two systems of thought? Or did he only meet Indian philosophers of Yoga-Sāṅkhya? Both speculations may be true to some extent, because there is evidence that Sāṅkhya was well-known in the regions he visited, and al-Bīrūnī was certainly sympathetic to the Yoga path, as will be discussed below.

He writes about these two texts:
I had translated two books into Arabic: the first of them on the principles (المبادئ) and a description of the existents (وصفة الموجودات),  named Sānk (سانك); the second on the liberation of the soul from the fetters of the body (تخليص النفس من رباط البدن), known as Pātanğal (پاتنجل). These two [books] contain most of the fundamentals (الاصل) around which their (i.e., the Indians) faith revolves, without the subdivision of their religious laws (دون فروع شرائعهم) (Taḥqīq 1958: 6.1-4).2
This description thus testifies to the popularity of the two texts among the Indians whom al-Bīrūnī encountered, and at the same time indicates the focus of each of the philosophies. His understanding of Sāṅkhya as ‘a description of the existents’ concurs with our knowledge of the doctrine elaborated in the Sāṅkhyakārikā, which sets out and defines the ontological principles of existence. His explanation of the Book of Patañjali as dealing with the ‘liberation of the soul from the fetters of the body’ is a reformulation of the idea of liberating the self (puruṣa) from materiality by the different practices described at length in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra.

In addition, al-Bīrūnī provides us with a valuable account regarding the history of transmission of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra as a text. Some commentators regard Patañjali as the author of the aphorisms (sūtra) and Vyāsa of the commentary (bhāṣya). More recently, however, scholars have questioned this view. It is likely that the dissociation between the aphorisms and commentary is a relatively late convention, and that one author in fact compiled the whole work under the Sanskrit term śāstra, i.e., treatise. (Bronkhorst 1985: 203; 2013: 57-68). Al-Bīrūnī translated the whole treatise, intermingling the aphorisms and the commentary in a dialogue, and attributed the totality of the work to a person named Patañjali (Maas 2013: 59-60).

However, al-Bīrūnī’s yoga text is not a literal translation of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra and, as a matter of fact, differs from it in many respects. Due to the technical character of the Sanskrit original, al-Bīrūnī had to modify it to fit his conceptual framework. In a sense, he faced similar difficulties to those of today’s translators of philosophical Indian texts (Maas and Verdon 2018: 321-328).3

Two examples of how al-Bīrūnī handled these problems are given below. First, however, two facts about his interpretation should be mentioned. He never translated the aphorisms as such. Instead, he created a dialogue including questions and answers which intermingles the two layers of the original text and reshapes its content (Maas and Verdon 2018: 317-320).

In this manner, the content of Pātañjalayogaśāstra 1.1-2 is summarised and paraphrased in the two first questions of al-Bīrūnī’s work. The widely known sūtra 1.2 can be translated as:
Yoga is the suppression of the activities of mind.
yogaś cittavṛttinirodhaḥ
Al-Bīrūnī conveys the meaning of this sūtra in the following way:
[The true knowledge is] to compress what is spread outward from you, in such a way that you are only engaged with yourself, and to prevent the faculties of soul from clinging to what is different from you (Ritter 1956: 170.2-3).4
قبض المبتثّ عنك نحو الخارجات اليك لئلا تشتغل الا بك و قمع قوى النفس عن التشبّت بغيرك 

Al-Bīrūnī translates the ‘self’ (puruṣa) and the ‘mind’ (citta) interchangeably with the term nafs (نفس). In Arabic, this word is polysemic and means ‘soul’, ‘spirit’, ‘mind’ or ‘human being’. So, he interprets cittavṛtti (i.e., the activities of the mind) by the expression ‘the faculties of the soul’ (قوى النفس). 

In his Book of Patañjali, al-Bīrūnī never uses the term yoga. In other words, he did not transliterate it into the Arabic script, nor did he directly translate the concept, as seen in sūtra 1.2 above. Nonetheless, question 5 of his dialogue includes the content of sūtras 1.5 to 1.11, and describes the five faculties in a way that is consistent with the definitions of the five yogic mental activities in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra; which confirms his translations of vṛtti (activities) by the term faculties in Arabic.

Al-Bīrūnī’s translation of samādhi is equally interesting. In the Sanskrit text, samādhi is mentioned in numerous instances, while in its Arabic version, only one passage appears to explicitly refer to this concept. This passage corresponds to Pātañjalayogaśāstra 1.17-18. Al-Bīrūnī’s translation states that there are two types of contemplation: one is perceptible with matter, which corresponds to saṃprajñāta-samādhi, and the other is contemplation of the intelligible, free from matter, which is asaṃprajñāta-samādhi. In both instances, al-Bīrūnī’s rendering differs from the original Sanskrit text, as he used terminology indebted to his Islamic intellectual background. However, in both cases, he conveyed the message rather faithfully. As shown by his interpretation of samādhi, al-Bīrūnī appears to have simplified technical concepts and partly omitted the complex discussions on the meditative states in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra.

There are two main reasons underlying such adaptations. First, as mentioned above, al-Bīrūnī, as any translator, depended on his cultural, linguistic and intellectual framework when he rendered technical concepts of yoga into Arabic. Secondly, the mental processes and the methods taught in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra to achieve a transcendent state of liberation from materiality resonated with al-Bīrūnī, as he was acquainted with theories of healing and elevating the soul, which were developed by Islamic thinkers. Therefore, he appears to have been keen to facilitate the transmission of these Indian ideas to his Muslim readership. While most of the message of the original text is preserved in al-Bīrūnī’s Arabic Book of Pātanğal, his work most certainly constitutes an interpretation, rather than a translation.


1 This post is based on my PhD research (Verdon 2015), which can be downloaded on the following link: Therefore, I do not refer to it, but only to other relevant studies in this communication.

2 See also Sachau 1910: I: 8.

3 The reader interested in the complete Kitāb Pātanğal can refer to the English translations by Pines and Gelblum (1966, 1977, 1983, 1989). 

4 See also Pines & Gelblum 1966: 313-314.


Bronkhorst, Johannes. 1985. Patañjali and the Yoga Sūtras. Studien zur Indologie und Iranistik, 10, 191-212.

Maas, Philipp A. 2013. “A Concise Historiography of Classical Yoga Philosophy.” In E. Franco (Ed.), Historiography and Periodization of Indian Philosophy (pp. 53-90). Vienna: De Nobili Series.

Maas, Philipp A. and Verdon, Noémie. 2018. “On al-Bīrūnī’s Kitāb Pātanğal and the Pātañjalayogaśāstra.” In Karl Baier, Philipp A. Maas and Karin Preisendanz (Eds.), Yoga in Transformation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Vienna: Vienna University Press, (Vienna Forum for Theology and the Study of Religions 16), p. 283–334.

Pines, Shlomo and Gelblum, Tuvia. 1966. Al-Bīrūnī’s Arabic Version of Patañjali’s Yogasūtra. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 29(2), 302-325.

Id. 1977. Al-Bīrūni’s Arabic Version of Patañjali’s Yogasūtra: A Translation of the Second Chapter and a Comparison with Related Texts. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 40(3), 522-549. Hyderabad: Da’irat al-Ma’arif il-Osmania Publications.

Id. 1983. Al-Bīrūnī’s Arabic Version of Patañjali’s Yogasūtra: A Translation of the Third Chapter and a Comparison with Related Texts. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 46(2), 258-304.

Id. 1989. Al-Bīrūnī’s Arabic Version of Patañjali’s Yogasūtra: A Translation of the Fourth Chapter and a Comparison with Related Texts. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 52(2), 265-305.

Ritter, Hellmut. 1956. Al-Bīrūnī’s Übersetzung des Yoga-Sūtra des Patañjali. Oriens, 9(2), 165-200.

Sachau, Carl Edward. 1910. Alberuni’s India. An Account of the Religion, Philosophy, Literature, Geography, Chronology, Astronomy, Customs, Laws and Astrology of India about AD 1030. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.

Taḥqīq. 1958. Al-Bīrūnī’s Kitāb fī taḥqīq mā li-l-Hind min maqūla maqbūla fī l-ʿaql aw marḏūla. Hyderabad: Da’irat al-Ma’arif il-Osmania Publications.

Verdon, Noémie. Forthcoming, 2020. Al-Bīrūnī’s Kitāb Sānk and Kitāb Pātanğal: A Historical and Textual Study. Vienna: De Nobili Research Library.


Noémie Verdon is a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for Research in Humanities of Kyoto University under a Swiss National Science Foundation scholarship. Her PhD examined al-Bīrūnī's life and his interpretation of Saṅkhya and Yoga Sanskrit texts into Arabic. Her current project explores Pre-Islamic and early Islamic Kāpiśī and Gandhāra focusing on the interactions between political and and religious agents of the region mainly based on textual sources, Arabic and Sanskrit. Her research interests generally focus on the history of transmission of ideas and knowledge between cultures in early medieval South Asia.

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Verdon, Noémie. 2019. “The Arabic Pātañjalayogaśāstra.” In The Luminescent, 30 October, 2019. Retrieved from:



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