Maharshi Patanjali’s Life Story

Hope you have read the blog – YOGA, definition and a brief introduction to origin, history and development of YOGA , if not please do! In it I have mentioned that the classic yoga period came with Maharshi Patanjali composing Yoga Sutras. Well after knowing that we tend to become curious to know more about Patanjali, his life story. It’s a very interesting story, do read on…

Ādiśesa incarnates as Patañjali

There are several references about Patanjali in many ancient works but only a few give his life story, one among them is Ramabhadra Diksita’s Patanjali Caritra – it is a Sanskrit mahakavya written with Patanjali as the main character. Lets know the legendary story –

Lord Vishnu, with his blissful smile is resting on Ādiśesa <thousand headed serpent>, floating on the milky ocean. All of sudden, Lord Vishnu’s weight rapidly increases & Ādiśesa, being the couch of the Lord, struggles to maintain his balance & breathes heavily through his thousand hoods. Ādiśesa wonders anxiously as to what might be the reason for this, just then Lord opens his eyes, waking up from his yoganidrā <yogic sleep>, and with tears of ecstasy in his eyes! His weight is back to normal and Ādiśesa is able to bear the weight of Lord as before. Ādiśesa asks the reason..

Lord begins to explain the wonderful spectacle he saw when he was in yoganidrā. He describes the ecstatic devine dance <tāndava> of Lord Shiva in the golden chamber to the accompaniment of various musical instruments played rhythmically by several devas <celestial beings>. It was on account of the infinite bliss he experienced that he became heavy, he says. Hearing that, Ādiśesa himself a loyal servant of Lord Vishnu and also a great devotee of Lord Shiva, expresses spontaneously his desire to witness the divine dance of Lord Shiva and requests the Lord to give him the boon. Lord with compassionate smile, released shesha from his service so that he could experience Shiva’s ananda tāndava.

Now Ādiśesa goes to mount Kailash, home of Lord Shiva and begins his austerities. Lord Shiva noticed his devote, tells Ādiśesa he will grant a boon. Ādiśesa expresses his desire to witness Shiva’s ananda tāndava & Lord Shiva grants his boon and tells he would be born in human form, ananda tāndava would occur in tillai woods in Chidambaram southern India, and there he would witness the ‘ananda tāndava’ together with bother sage ‘Vyaghrapada’.

< A long time before this occurred, sage Pānini, performed severe penance and surrender to Lord Shiva. Shiva with great compassion towards Pānini, played his damaru <small drum> and from the sound created by damaru was born the Māheśvara Sūtra, the basis of Sanskrit grammar! Based on Māheśvara Sūtra, Pānini wrote a Sūtra that became the basic text for Sanskrit grammar. Further, sage Kātyāyana, wrote detailed commentary on Pānini’s sūtras. Later Pānini’s pupil Vyaghrabhūta and Kātyāyana’s pupil Svabhūti taught to several others. > However Lord Shiva was not satisfied neither by the quality of these works nor by the pace of propagation of Sanskrit grammar, which resulted in very unsatisfactory communication among people and poor understanding of the śāstras <scriptures>. Hence Lord Shiva desired that Ādiśesa take birth as human being, witness the celestial dance of Natarāja <Lord of dance, Shiva> and then write a detailed and authentic commentary on Sanskrit grammar.

Ādiśesa, desiring to reincarnate as a human being, moves around in space looking out for a suitable family to be born into, and reaches tapovana near Rishikesh. There he sees a woman named Gonikā <daughter of sage Jirania Garbha, he was a follower of the Sankhya philosophy & wife of rishi Anguiras who wrote some hymns of the Rig-Veda and the Atharva-Veda. She was a virtuous woman & tantra yoga practitioner.> Gonikā was performing a penance, desiring a satputra <worthy son>. Ādiśesa decides to bless her by being born to her as a child. As she offers oblation to Sūrya <the Sun>, with her hands kept in añjali mudrā <namaskara mudra>, Ādiśesa enters into the arghya <oblation> water in her hands and falls to the earth as a child along with the water of oblation. Gonikā immensely pleased with the birth of the divine child, showers her love on the baby and names him Patañjali which means “one who falls out of folded <añjali> hands.

Patañjali witnesses Lord Śiva’s ananda tāndava @ Chidambaram


As years pass by Patañjali, has a deep desire to do tapas <intense meditation> on For Śiva. Promising his mother that he would be by her side any time she needed, proceeds for tapas. Subsequently, Lord Śiva, pleased with the intense tapasya, ekagra <one pointedness> & sāmadhi state of Patañjali, presents himself <along with his consort Parvathi, seated on his bull – Nandi> in a divine vision to Patañjali. This cosmic vision brings out the poet in Patañjali , prostrating in front of the Lord, he poetically describes the Lord’s form <pādādi keśānta varnanā>, reminds Patañjali of his original form and the purpose of his incarnation in human form on earth. Lord then orders him to come to Chidambaram to witness the ananda tāndava <dance of bliss> and then write the Mahābhāsya <great commentary on Sanskrit grammar. So saying Lord disappears.

Journeying along the landscape and forests, Patañjali reaches the holy place Chidambaram. Patañjali along with another sage Vyagrapāda and other sages, reaches the golden theatre – ponnambalam to witness the divine dance. Several celestial gods were present. Lord Shiva, in all his divine splendour, accompanied by his consort goddess Parvathi, and riding on his Nandikeśvara <bull vehicle of Śiva>, arrives at the theatre. The divine dance is about to start – Nandi takes the baton, Vishnu becomes the percussionist, Brahma plays the chime, Indra the flute, Sarasvatī the vīnā. Parvathi, Lord’s consort, overseas the arrangements with her bewitching smile. Specifically asking Patañjali and Vyāgrapāda to watch carefully for all the details, the Lord gives necessary divyadrsti <divine vision>. The ananda tāndava starts with a slow rhythm and in time reaches a crescendo. Engrossed completely in the devine dance, the great sages loose their individual identities and experience advaita <oneness with the only essential principle of consciousness>. The ananda tāndava slowly comes to an end. Reminding Patañjali to write Mahābhāsya, Shiva disappears from mortal vision. Both Vyāgrapāda Patañjali, desiring that other devotees not as fortunate as they were also have the bliss of seeing the tāndava, engrave them on stone in Chidambaram. Also Patañjali passes the information on prayer rituals to Dikshitars <The temple is managed and administered till date, hereditarily by the Chidambaram Dikshitar – a class of Vaideeka Brahmins who were trained by Maharshi Patanjali, specifically for the performance of the daily rituals and maintenance of the Chidambaram temple.>

Patañjali’s renowned works – Mahābhāsya, Yoga Sūtras & Patanjalatantra & Jeeva Samadhi

Patañjali, concentrating fully on the divine vision he had of Lord Śiva, writes detailed commentary on Sanskrit grammar called Mahābhāsya. Several students hearing about the masterly work, flock to him from all directions. Patañjali, desiring to teach them all simultaneously, but individually as well, decided to teach in his nija swaroopa – thousand-hooded Ādiśesa. He withdraws himself behind a screen<as his appearence would be terrifying, more important, his breath in the confined space would be poisonous and fiery> & orders the students not to open the screen at any cost, orders one of his student Gaudapāda to guard the screen from being tampered  & he takes his original form as Ādiśesa and starts teaching all of them. As is the custom, the students chant the starting and ending prayers dutifully and study in an orderly fashion. Days pass on smoothly up to a point of studying the sūtra known as vasu sūtra.

Patañjali, was able to convey or impart this wisdom direct in the mind of students. He was able to address and answer all the students doubts and questions simultaneously and immediately at the mental level. He was so compassinate but demanding teacher, requiring students to be punctual and disciplined in the classes.  Once Gaudapāda leaves the class when the discourse was half way through,  several of his students unable to control their bewilderment as to how a single person can teach so many students simultaneously on one-to-one basis, break the law & withdraw the curtain. They were stunned to find Ādiśesa and were reduced to ashes! Ādiśesa comes back to the form of Patanjali, feels devasted as all his students are reduced to ashes, however Gaudapāda returns to the class,  but since Gaudapāda left the class without chanting the ending & peace prayer he curses him to turn into a brahma rāksasa / demon. He also gives the antidote for his own curse he says – “The curse will be exorcised , if you are able to find one who could answer your question right and tell you what is the nista <past principle> of Sanskrit root pac.” Patanjali blesses him all the knowledge of Mahābhāsya in an instant and departs.

Patanjali then writes Yoga Sūtras, a classic collection of aphorisms on conventional Yoga & another work Patanjalatantra, a commentary on the science of medicine for mental illness <āyurveda>.  He then meets his mother and after taking her blessings and being satisfies that his mission is accomplished he goes to Rameshwaram temple  <Rameshwaram temple has many temples within it. On the entrance of the temple a large statue of Patanjali facing Vyāgrapāda both in anjali-mudra profounding their reverence to the Lord Shiva, can be seen. On a wall near the entrance of the shiva mandapa is the list of self-initiated gurus who have served at the temple. Patanjali is listed as the third of eighteen. The rameshwaram temple has small, enclosed courtyard with a well, Patanjali is said to have meditate here in silence for many years. As time passed he become increasingly translucent until he become nearly transparent, then one day, He was seen no more. He was absorbed into eternity as he dissolved from sight in this world. His samadhi houses a holy fire, symbol of his life and transmutation.> and attains jeeva samadhi there.

Patanjali jeeva Samadhi

Ādiśesa re-incarnates as Chandra Sarma <also known as Govinda Swami / Govinda Bhagavatpada>

After a considerably long time, Ādiśesa, finding that his work had not spread far & wide as expected, takes another human birth. He goes to the brahma rāksasa and answers the vexing grammatical question himself. Gaudapāda, having his curse removed, volunteers to teach the Mahābhāsya to Chandra Sarma, the traveller from Ujjain. With intense interest Chandra Sarma learns the Mahābhāsya in just two months. He writes down the complete notes on dry banyan leaves, using his finger nails as pen. Having distributed the knowledge, Gaudapāda bids Chandra Sarma telling him to propagate the text faithfully, disappears. Chandra Sarmā with his notes on leaves goes back to Ujjain, marries and fathers four sons. All of them study Mahābhāsya with Chandra Sarmā. 

  1. Varuchi – The 1st son of Chandra, was well versed in all śāstras / scriptures and became proficient in mathematics & astronomy.
  2. Vikarmārka / Vikramāditya – A renowned ruler became a pioneer in law & justice. It is said that Indra gave him a simhāsana / throne made of precious gems!
  3. Kātyāyana / Bhatti  – Becomes Vikarmārka’s minister.
  4. Bhartrhari – Becomes a Sanskrit scholar and a grammarian.

After marrying off all his children Chandra Sarmā takes sannyāsa and stays in Vārānāsī, the renowned abode of learning, for some time. He then reaches Badrikāśrama in Himālayas, establishes a math / hermitage and remains in the experience of Advaita <oneness with absolute>. He becomes known as Govindaswāmī / Govinda Bhagavatpada.

Govinda Swami / Govinda Bhagavatpada guru of Adi Śankaracharya

Śankara was born in the southern Indian state of Kerala, in a village named Kaladi. His father died while Shankara was very young. Shankara’s upanayanam / thread ceremony < the initiation into student-life> had to be delayed due to the death of his father, and was then performed by his mother. He was attracted to the life of Sannyasa (hermit) from early childhood. However his mother Sivataraka disapproved. Shankara at age eight was going to a river with his mother, to bathe, and where he is caught by a crocodile. Shankara called out to his mother to give him permission to become a Sannyasin or else the crocodile will kill him. The mother agrees, Shankara is freed by the crocodile and leaves his home for education.

He travels the length of India on foot and reaches banks of river Narmada, and gets to meet Govindaswāmī, who was in samadhi / trance in the caves of the ashram. Thereafter, praising Govindaswāmī as an incarnation of Adiśesa, Śankara requests to accept him as his student. Govindaswāmī asks Śankara “who are you?” Śankara answers “I came here to know that! But if it is this body that you are referring to then I am just Śankara <kevalah Śankara aham>.” Govindaswāmī, impressed with the answer accepts Śankara as his disciple and bestows his divine blessings. Śankara was then initiated as Govinda Bhagavatapada’s disciple, thus formally entering sanyasaŚankara was then commissioned by his Guru to write a Bhashya (commentary) on the Brahma Sutra and spread the Advaita philosophy far and wide. Śankara becomes well know as the Advaita Philosopher Adi Śankaracharya !


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References: Yoga for the three stages of life by Srivatsa Ramaswami, wikipedia, chidambaramnataraja

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Hello & Namasthe ! I am Swetha Reddem, a software professional turned yoga professional ( YIC & M.Sc.Yoga from SVYASA Yoga University and teaching yoga since 2018). I have a 8+ years young naughty boy and another one 30+ years young (my husband 😊) . And about my likes - I love ❤️ doing yoga, nothing feels more relaxing than that, photography 📸 , gardening 👩‍🌾 n reading books on Yogic lore. Am a nature lover 🌴 and would try my best not to harm it and a vegetarian by choice from almost 2 decades. Am a DIYer - n prepare most stuff that all my family 👪 n home 🏡 needs from organic grooming n beauty products 👄 👁 👣 💆 to home cleaners and food 🍲🍨🍧🥗🍦🍰🍪🥞🍕🍹 . I am inspired by the zero waste movement, minimalism & eco friendly lifestyle. I would love to share the recipes and my thoughts with you all!

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