This is the first installment of a series in which I’m presenting my translation, done under the close of supervision of my fabulous teacher Marcia Solomon, of Ādi Śankara’s short treatise on Yoga, Yoga Tārāvali. I’ve been studying Sanskrit now for about four years and I am by no means an expert, or even necessarily proficient with the language. Nevertheless, it is as fun as it is challenging to do and I’ve come to a point where I feel compelled to share what I’ve been working on. If anybody happens to be turned on to read more Yogic philosophy or perhaps study Sanskrit themselves, that would be gravy.
The format will be as follows: a presentation of each śloka in Roman transliteration, followed by a translation, followed by commentary. Some ślokas will warrant more commentary than others. Oh, and a word on the transliteration— I’m still feeling my way around with Apple Pages. I’ve found some of the diacritics and markings, but not all of them, so I’ll do the best I can and provide footnotes or N.B.’s where appropriate. Now, without further ado…..
vande gurūnām caranāravinde
janasya ye jāngalikāyamāne
samsāra hālāhala mohaśantyai ||
I bow to the pair of lotus feet of the Gurus, by whom the bliss stemming from knowledge of one’s own eternal Self is experienced, and who serve as the peoples’ shamanic doctor, an antidote to the poisonous herb of conditioned, repeating existence
So, this should be familiar to practitioners of Ashtanga Yoga as the first half of our opening mantra. The origins of the second part (“abahu purushakaram, etc.”) are not known to me and I’ve asked a few people in the know. But I haven’t asked Sharath-ji yet. If anybody knows, he probably should. Anyway, it makes perfect sense that Pattabhi Jois would choose this śloka to be part of our opening mantra. It keeps the tradition of beginning all lessons with thanks to teachers. It is about paramparā (more on that below) and the author, Adi Śankara, is the Jois family's guru. The Jois family comes from a lineage known as Smarta Brahmins and their order, if you will, was founded by Adi Śankara. An analogy that might be helpful is to think that if Smarta Brahmins were Jesuits, then Adi Śankara would be their Ignatius Loyola.
There are two minor differences between what Ashtangis chant at the beginning of their practice and what is written. Both of them are in the second pada (two-line grouping). The first is while we chant nishreyase (which means “best,” or “beyond best”), in the three versions I’ve worked with the word is janasya. Jana means “the people.” It evolved into Latin as “gens, gentis,” and then forward again into modern Spanish and English as “gente” and “gentry,” respectively. Janasya, is jana in the 6th case, or what in Latin and Greek we call the genitive, which indicates possession. I’m not sure why Pattabhi Jois would have switched these two words or where the discrepancy might have come from. He was a widely esteemed Sanskrit scholar so I’m sure there must be a good reason.
The other difference, really minor, is in the very last word, mohaśantyai. The Devanagri (Sanskrit writing/alphabet) rendering is quite unambiguous in that the last vowel is is “ai,” pronounced as long a I as in “eye,” or “aisle.” But when chanted by Pattabhi Jois, his daughter Saraswathi-ji, and my teacher Sharath-ji they all pronounce the last vowel as a long A, as in “pray,” or “date.” The simplest explanation is that the difference stems from regional variations in pronunciation. Put simply, it’s probably a southern thing. As in the United States, there is a cultural divide in India between the northern and southern regions, with each side staking its claim on the high ground of authenticity when it comes to religious and linguistic matters.
Minor differences aside, the thrust of this śloka remains the same: it is about giving thanks to teachers past and present. It is about paramparā, or lineage. At the risk of some redundancy for most readers, the term paramparā describes the handing down of knowledge from teacher to student in an unbroken chain through the ages. For the devout this chain goes all the way back to Śiva, who according to mythology is the first yogi. When I think of it I like to visualize two mirrors set at an angle next to each other and the way your reflection reduplicates and fades back into infinity. So it is with our teachers going back through time.
Finally, a word about feet. The first line of the śloka says “I bow to the pair of lotus feet.” For those unfamiliar with Indian culture, the touching of feet ritual can seem a bit strange. But it comes down to this: feet have different significance, or meaning, if you will, in Indian and Western culture. In the West, feet are the part of the body which are most often in contact with the ground. They are dirty. So to put yourself at somebody’s feet is seen as a supreme act of surrender, or groveling, even. In Indian culture, feet are the vessels of the the transference of knowledge and grace. Thus to touch somebody’s feet, as children do to their parents or elders, is a sign of respect without the baggage we have in the West. That said, when you see Western people touch feet I acknowledge that it can be downright off-putting. The one time I practiced with Pattabhi Jois happened when I had just started Ashtanga Yoga and I must say I was skeptical when I saw people lining up to touch his feet. They all seemed like a bunch of phonies. Fast-forward to a year later and I was in Mysore for the first time, practicing with Saraswathi-ji. At some point she was walking past me and I just dropped and did it. It felt quite natural. Automatic, even. When I see Sharath-ji I make a point to touch his feet only the first and last times I see him. I tried to touch my chanting teacher’s feet once and he got quite pissed. He said “I am not God, so don’t touch my feet.” I think it all boils down to feel, and it has to be mutual from both parties. Don’t feel compelled to do it if you don’t feel it, neither restrain yourself if you do, although you may risk a telling off. But that just means the person whose feet you went to touch is humble, which of course is a good thing.
In our unpacking of the next śloka we will deal with, among other things, very large numbers and music which makes no sound. Stay tuned!