The first attempt at an English translation of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra ("Threads of Yoga") was made by James Robert Ballantyne (1813-1864), a Scottish Orientalist and linguist. From 1846 to 1861 he was the principal of the prestigious Sanskrit College in Benares, established in 1791 by the British East India Company. Ballantyne, an adherent of a movement known as the Scottish Enlightenment (which also claimed as members poet Robert Burns, novelist Walter Scott, philosopher David Hume, and inventor James Watt), was also a prolific translator and writer. Along with the Yoga Sutra, he translated the Sankhya Karika ("Verses on Enumeration"), issued a print version of a series of lectures on Nyaya ("universal rules," i.e., logic), and compiled a Sanskrit primer.
We might applaud Ballantyne's efforts to disseminate Hindu wisdom among Western English-speakers. But in fact Ballantyne was a dedicated Christian evangelist, who also authored a book titled 'Christianity Contrasted With Hindu Philosophy, sub-titled, With Practical Suggestions Tendered to the Missionary Among the Hindus", a sort of "Christian Evangelism for Dummies." His ultimate goal with all his translations was to educate Westerners so that they would, in effect, "know their enemy" and be better prepared to refute Hinduism and promote Christianity. To his credit-and we should cut him an inch of slack, since he was, after all a product of his time and culture-he strongly believed that Hindus shouldn't be converted through coercion, bribery, or deceit. Instead, in line with the values of the Scottish Enlightenment, he maintained that reason and clear demonstration of the "contradictions" in Hindu holy books and "verities" in the Christian would prove the incontrovertible "superiority" of the latter over the former, and convert Hindu non-believers of their own volition into willing followers of Jesus. Apparently, while he never ceased to favor Christianity over Hinduism, like many Western Christian evangelists before and after him, Ballantyne eventually was himself influenced by Hinduism and became, as one writer put it, a "Vedantic Calvinist."
Now some 150 years and over 100 print translation/commentaries later (and I don't know how many more floating around in cyberspace), we might ask an obvious question: why does such a relatively short book-just over 1200 words total, about the length of our Declaration of Independence, but less than 600 words if we toss out those used more than once-loom so large among all the books in the Yoga tradition? Why, in other words, has the Yoga Sutra been the focus of so many translation/commentaries?
No doubt the book attracts much of the attention it does because of its inspired teaching, but it also has significant historical import. While one of the earliest concrete references to yoga dates back conservatively to the Katha Upanishad in 500 BCE, the Yoga Sutra represents the first systematic approach to yoga practice. There's a good deal of controversy over its date of composition, a common enough situation with these old yoga books. But sometime between 200 BCE and 200 CE Patanjali pulled together and organized existing material, both of a philosophical and practical nature, and so laid the foundation for many subsequent yoga schools, including many of modern times. If you're interested in the historical development of yoga from post-Upanishadic times, you simply can't see the whole picture without a study of the Yoga Sutra.
And why, pray tell, do I bring this subject up at all? Well a few years ago I was asked to write the Foreward to a translation project headed by Salvatore Zambito, founder/director of the Yoga Sutra Institute in Washington state. Salvatore's plan was to make a dictionary of all the words in the Yoga Sutra, an enormous undertaking even though the text itself is relatively short. Now after a few years of diligent effort, the dictionary is finally completed, and Salvatore will be in the Bay Area to meet with its publisher later this month. When he emailed his greetings to me a few days ago, I jumped at the opportunity to host him at PYS. So I'm pleased to announce that on SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 26, FROM 7:00 to 9:00 pm, Salvatore will speak on the Yoga Sutra. He describes his presentation like this:
All aspects of Yoga, from asana to samadhi, are explained and correlated in the Yoga-Sutra. Yoga without the Sutra has benefits, but with the Sutra we get profound insight into just why we are doing what we are doing.