In comparing the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras, the first general distinction we make is that the Gita offers prescriptions amenable to householders (grhasthas) and the YS offers prescriptions suited for renunciants (sramanas, sanyasis, viras).

Indeed, local commentators have suggested that the Gita was written partly to curtail the loss of male social capital to renunciant lifestyles.[1]

In our time, where new forms of Hatha Yoga are all the rage and the Yoga Sutras are the going template for Hatha practice, it is rarely noted that much of the phenomena described in the Sutras would be encountered only by the committed sanyasi.

The physical culturist yogis now paying sweat equity in homes, gyms and neighborhood studios are not spiritual heroes, but grhasthas (householders).  Only viras (heroes) will depart mainstream life to do the painful practices that yield siddhis (yogic powers) and explore the rarified states of samadhi described in the YS.

This bias in the two texts is apparent at the most superficial level.

Krishna and Arjuna

Krishna and Arjuna

Let us first look at the Gita.

The Gita establishes its target audience and its message through the content of a story and the very fact that it is story.

Though it deals with personal practice, this practice serves not just salvation but society and society’s mundane and spiritual relationships, too.

In the course of its conversation, it attempts to speak to and about a variety of dispositions in human character as well as the wider cosmological community (animals, gods, plants, the elements, etc.).  It discusses a broad typology of human types, their concomitant behavior and the spiritual practices (yogas) appropriate to them.

Its instruction is framed first by the relationship of the royal aid Sanjaya through his conversation with the blind king Dhrtarashtra (which begins the book) and then by the God/chariot driver Krishna’s speech to the Pandava warrior, Krishna (ostensibly narrated by Sanjaya).

Sanjaya’s and Dhrtarashtra’s relationship sees no meaningful evolution, but the larger corpus unfolds as Arjuna gradually realizes Krishna’s status as the greatest of Gods.

Krishna Bhagavad Gita 4These relationships play out over time and space.

References are made to events in the immediate vicinity of speakers (Arjuna: “and the divine Gandiva bow slips from my hand,” BG 1:30), as well as distantly (Sanjaya:  “seeing the army of the Pandavas, Duryodhana went to his acarya Drona, and said:” BG 1:2).  Future events are described such as the eminent death of heroes (BG 11:26-34) and past events are described, such as Krishna’s passing along of “this deathless yoga” through a line of sages (BG 4:1-2).

Though it may sound over-obvious to say so, it is through a struggle with our familiar social and spatio-temporal concerns (though they may be without the drama of an oncoming war—the setting of Krishna and Arjuna’s conversation) that we recognize the Gita’s plot, characters and timeless wisdom.

KrishnaOrArjunaOur own challenge to be socially well-adjusted and spiritually evolved is mirrored in this tale, and we can argue that it was composed to advance the cause of justice within the human community, as many commentators have done.[2]

Krishna’s confident avuncularity as he unfolds it all, allows us to read the Gita for pleasure as well as instruction. The Gita is both casual and serious fare.

Indeed, its readability makes it one of the greatest tales of human imagining and, by itself and—as part of the Mahabharata—the Gita orients Indian social and national identity.[3]

The Gita is both “horizontal” and “vertical.”  It is a guide to relations in this world—friends, kin and community—as well as our relationships to gods, destiny and the ascent of the soul.

Though Arjuna’s struggle is existential and personal, its implications are social and the struggle is resolved in the context of relationships to gurus, fellow soldiers and family. Arjuna waffles amidst these obligations. These relationships provoke his crisis.

Early on in Krishna’s argument to show Arjuna his error, he states:

3:33 But if you persist in denying dharma,

Your dignity and sva-dharma are lost;

And you expose yourself to shame

Krishna and Arjuna in Battle

Krishna and Arjuna in Battle

34 Your shame will never end, never

Shame is worse than death

to a man of honour.

35 The maha-chariot-heroes will say,

“He fled.”

And those who once praised you

will brand you a coward.

36 Your enemies will hurl insults at you.

What could be more painful than this?

KrishnaArjunaStatueSuch arguments appeal to a social self, not an intrapersonal one.

As Krishna spins out his instruction to Arjuna over 15 ensuing chapters, he will depart from such facile arguments and focus profoundly on personal sadhana (spiritual work), but in doing so, he will continually speak of the social whole, referencing his own varied incarnations in humankind (BG 10:21-37), the divine and anti-divine persons and how they affect the Earth (BG 16), his relationship to the bhakta (BG 7:14, 16, 17, 21, 28; 8:22; 11:54-5; 12:6-11, 14, 17, 19, 20—and elsewhere) and numerous other social themes. Two of the four main yogas described in the BG are specifically social and relational in nature:  karma and bhakti. Karma yoga, as the Gita explains it, is mainly the proper expression of svadharma—individual responsibility to family, society and labor; and bhakti yoga, of course, unfolds within an intimate society of devotee and deity.

The Sutra, on the other hand, has nothing to say about community, communal practice, society, or social duty (despite the fact that its ethical codes, the yamas and niyamas could be construed as a people’s “Ten Commandments.”).

Krishna Appearing to Arjuna in his Universal Form (as Vishvarupa), from B. Gita, Ch. 11.

Krishna Appearing to Arjuna in his Universal Form (as Vishvarupa), from B. Gita, Ch. 11.

There is no situation in the Sutra, no plot, no characters, no dialog, and no mirror of history or everyday life.  Its message comes from no named time or place.

It is entirely focused on the existential desire to attain liberation from every limiting context–social or otherwise.

The purusha itself—that the Sutra holds as yoga’s goal—has no relativizing conditions, no Earthly context.  It hovers as a posited “true identity” of humans and has a “proximal” relationship to nature (i.e. prakriti), but technically, it has no immanence—no horizontality.  Furthermore, liberation into purusha, as Patanjali describes it, happens to individuals (seers), not to groups.  This liberation is not called moksha or nirvana in the Sutras, but kaivalyaKaivalya is commonly rendered as “independence” or “aloneness.”[4]

Patanjali Edward Bryant SutrasThe Gita may spur one to practice, but the Sutras assumes not only an established practice, but a nonsocial one. In the Hindu tradition, the sanyasi ceremonially forsakes family and social obligation when beginning sadhana (work on the spiritual path).

Though monasteries were popularized by the Buddhists and existed in the time of these texts, the vira’s path was still conceived as a solo act or, at best, a small-group affair—the sanyasi, guru and perhaps another disciple (or two) could join together for liberative work.

Indian Renunciants are commonly wanderers, living from begging bowls (or nowadays, begging cans!), abiding by the Vedic injunction to remain dormant only in the three-month rainy season.

They are often naked and strangely adorned—to assert their freedom from social stricture and to signify their separate, iconic status.[5] Often the sage retreats to a wholly unpopulated place—the jungle, desert or mountains.  Internal bodily powers, not social powers, are cultivated here—though they may eventually have a social effect or a social role. (The sadhu may be sought for blessings, satsang, healing, or other ministerial purposes.)

Patanjali’s has written a manual for these lone, hardy practitioners. Such manuals were apparently common in Patanjali’s era[6]—one in which the sramana movement had good momentum.


Patanajali as Sesha

Patanajali as Sesha

The Sutras is trued by this categorical imperative and a disembodied authorial voice. It lays out the navigation points for a far-reaching, ambitious practice, while making no attempt to convey concern for the reader or entertain him.  Patanjali provokes limited sentiments in laying out his plan of attack on kaivalya.  At the end of the day, the Sutra is a strictly informational treatise on yoga practice that resonates with the patent authority of a realized sage—while giving practically no hint about who he might be.

As one swami put it:

“Patanjali would like nothing better than to remain utterly anonymous or to present himself in the most impersonal ways. Patanjali puts on a deliberately impenetrable mask and creates a precise game he can play without the slightest concern for personal disclosure.”[7]

To make use of narrative voice or, further, story structure, characters or drama would betray the Sutra’s intent to quell vikalpa (fancy) (YS 1:6, 9).
Stories invite future and past projection, emotions, and meditations on illusions.  Stories create needless vrtti (mental turbulence). Patanjali goals would be clouded by blandishments.  He lets nothing interfere with his goal of identifying you with the purusha and making you a seer.

Gunas.tibetan-bon-symbolWithin this address to viras, there is a slight bow to social variance. The Sutras provides a slim typology of sadhaks (spiritual practitioners) and explores a narrow field of spiritual practice.

It speaks of videha, prakritilaya and common yogis (YS 1:19-20).

Vedehas are disembodied and merged into Purusha and prakritilayas are spontaneously merged into the purusha at birth or a young age.[8] (Common yogis, of course, have to work!)

The Sutra also describes three types of strivers on the path: mild, medium and strong (mrdu, madhya, and adhimatra, YS 1:22).

Each reaches asamprajnata samadhi[9] at different speeds (YS 1:21-2)

Vishvamitra by Sanjay Patel

To these practitioners the Sutra offers a range of modes for stilling the mind beyond the well known eight limbs—including devotion to Isvara (1:23), chanting om (1:27-9), concentration on one principle (1:32), cultivation of a peaceful thoughts (1:33), pranayama (1:34), attention to the senses (1:35), manifesting inner light (1:36), meditation on passionless persons (1:37), and knowledge of dream (1:38).  These practices form the preamble to a long, thorough slough through dhyana, dharana and samadhi to kaivalya that are described in the ensuing chapters.

However, the Sutras cannot compare to the Gita in offerings of this type.

This tells us that the Gita was meant for a wide readership practicing at varying levels of depth and bearing diverse proclivities.

It differentiates among human types throughout the text, but is particularly explicit in chapter 17 where it speaks of 3 types of devotees—satvika, rajasika and tamasika—and in chapter 12 where Krishna differentiates between the renunciant vira-type yogi and the bhakta.

krishnamacharya teaching pranayama womanIts sadhanas are copious.

Chapter five alone offers 23, including: renunciation (BG 5:2), Karma yoga (5:2), practicing in earnest (5:4), commanding the senses (5:7), disciplining the body (5:7), detachment (5:10), abandoning the fruits of work (5:11), taking refuge in the body (5:13), self-realization (5:16), reposing in Brahman (5:20), maintaining serenity (5:20), eschewing delusion (5:20), equanimity amidst pleasantness and unpleasantness (5:20), disaffection toward worldliness (5:20), meditating on Brahman (5:21), finding no joy in sense pleasure (5:22), devotion to service (5:25), controlling desire and anger (5:26), controlling vision (5:27), disciplining life breaths (5:27), controlling prana and apana (5:27), disciplining senses, mind and intellect (5:28), and eschewing greed and fear (5:28).

Maha Mandir Roots of Yoga 1Arguably, there are redundancies here, but such a list could be compiled from other chapters, too, thus suggesting a motivation to provide an encyclopedic compendium for sadhana (spiritual work).

This gives the document wide appeal.  And when we consider statements that seem to open salvation up to low castes, (BG 5:18; 9:26, 29) the Gita sounds even more populist—though within limits, as we shall see below.


The Texts’ Modern Social Position

If my many years of global experience in modern yoga is any indication, the Sutras are the most authoritative and widely-read traditional text in modern Hatha yoga practice.

Vivekananda in 1893

Vivekananda in 1893

Sutra study is de rigueur for yoga teacher training programs and for university study of the yoga tradition throughout the world.  In the “post-modern” period, the Yoga Sutras are live.

This is partly because of the law of increasing returns—Swami Vivekananda introduced modern postural yoga and the Sutras to the West at the same time.

Vivekananda was an instinctive public relations expert and his beachhead speech at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893 took America by storm.[10]

Though critical of Hatha Yoga,[11] he taught it to his followers, establishing what the New York Herald called a fad in the practice by 1898. [12]

His 1896 translation of the Sutras (titled Raja Yoga) imitated the conversational style of gilded age Americans[13] and sold well, affecting the burgeoning New Age community perhaps even more than the small but concomitantly emerging “yogic class.”[14]

It’s been salad days for the Sutras ever since.

Sanskrit Script II.SmallSrischandra Basu, a capable scholar (but not a celebrity) published an English version of the Siva Samhita in 1887, and the equally non-celebrated S. Iyangar translated the Hatha Yoga Pradipika to English six years later. These were true Hatha Yoga texts. They describe the yoga of the body.

The Yoga Sutras describe a mental yoga, not the physical yoga that is popular now.

Bodily yoga was a pariah practice to Occidentals in the late 19th century, no better than any other fakir art.[15] Only scholars and renegades had minds free enough to embrace these strict and somewhat carnal Hatha Yoga texts.

According to one source, even Indian pandits in Vivekananda’s day had slim praise for the Pradipika, the Gheranda Samhita, and Hatha texts of their ilk.[16]

Hatha Yoga Pradipika 2To this day, the Samhita and Pradipika still have not attained the fame of the Sutras, probably because neither is as elegantly abstract as Patanjali’s text, neither is as “safe,” and neither has been championed by a religious superstar like Vivekananda. 

Nonetheless, Basu and Iyangar may have more accurately pointed to true Hatha practice and its modern variant.

Like the Sutras, The Gita established a worldwide following in the modern period—within a century after its English translation by Charles Wilkins in 1785.[17]

The first edition was accompanied by a stirring commendation from India’s first governor general, Warren Hastings, that bore the then-novel sentiment that the Gita was “evidence of the achievements of Indians and truth of their worthiness to be treated with respect.”[18]

Emerson and Thoreau wrote about the Gita in the mid-19th century and the fame of these authors glamorized the text for others. In the late 1800’s Gandhi was introduced to Arnold’s translation by some friendly Theosophists.[19] Thereafter he expanded on the work of the nationalist Bal Gandrahar Tilak to co-opt the Gita’s

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

lessons for swaraj (Indian Self-rule). [20]

By this time (the 20th century), the Gita’s centrality as the putative “Bible” of Hinduism was broadly accepted and a broad demographic of Indians looked to the text as a social apologetic for India’s current malaise and past greatness, as much as for its spiritual purport.[21]

However, in the postmodern yoga community, the Gita—regardless of its wide fame or keener adjustment to third-millennium yogic lifestyles—still plays second fiddle to the Sutra.  The Bhagavad Gita’s gifts are its shortcomings!  A yoga community founded on a taste for esoterica probably finds this text insufficiently cool—it’s too prosaic, too knowable, and too mundane.   The Bhagavad Gita is “PG.”

Though richly meaningful and well-tailored to the modern yogi’s social position, the Gita cannot match the Sutra’s mystery, elegance and singularity of focus.

For these reasons and others referenced here, the Gita is consigned to second place behind the Sutras in living yoga counterculture, and, barring some upheaval of postmodern yogic taste, that is where it is likely to stay.



[1] Dr. Christopher Wallis, in class comments.  7/23/08.

[2] The course concerned itself primarily with this usage and it was part and parcel of the course text by Minor .See also Robinson’s discussion of the Gita’s use by Tilak, Ghandi and Sri Aurobindo, 54-70.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Kaivalya is translated variously as “liberation” or “individuality by Satyananda, “enlightenment” or “self-realization by Tamimni, “aloneness” by Whicher, “freedom”  by Hartranft, “onlyness” by Ryan and “independence” by Vivekananda.

[5] Hartsuiker, 80-81.

[6] Whicher, (1998) p. 47.

[7] In Brooks (Spring, 2006), p. 72.

[8] See Satyananda’s commentary, 75.

[9] Satyananda describes asamprajnata samadhi as “a particular or favorable angle of vision . . . [that] . . . presposes spiritual realization. . . this samadhi . . . is a peculiar faculty; it is the spiritual attitude or spiritual vision that one develops by constant satsang and by constant self-purification.” 77.

[10] See Sen, 32, Burke, 1, Rolland, 2-3.

[11] Vivekananda, 20-21,

[12] The New York Herald, March 27, 1898, p. 1, in ibid,, p. 152-3

[13] Shaw, 5-6

[14] De Michelis, 181-86

[15] Love, 3.

[16] Lanman, 361, n. 8.

[17] Robinson, 30-36.

[18] Robinson, 38.

[19] Ibid., 60.

[20] Ibid., 54-64.

[21] Ibid., 29-34.















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