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The influence of Jaina philosophy on Patañjali

26 September 2022

Discuss the influence of Jaina philosophy on the Pātañjalayogaśāstra.

James Russell, MA Student, SOAS, University of London

'Patañjali's Authoritative Exposition of Yoga' - the Pātañjalayogaśāstra (ca. 400 CE)1 is widely recognised as a seminal philosophical treatise, and Pātañjalayoga is considered the method, par excellence, of so-called 'Classical Yoga'. The Pātañjalayogaśāstra is not an original work and is primarily a synthesis of ideas prevalent at the time of its composition within Brahmanism and amongst Śramaṇic groups in the northeast of India. One such group is the Jainas, an ancient tradition with a history predating Patañjali by at least seven centuries. Jaina philosophical treatises were composed as early as the third century BCE2 and anticipate and address many of the themes discussed in Patañjali's yogaśāstra. This essay will explore similarities between the doctrine of the early Jainas and Pātañjalayoga by focusing on three key topics intrinsic to both traditions: rebirth, karma and ethics. A number of early Jaina works will be consulted and compared with the Pātañjalayogaśāstra. Doctrinal continuities will be examined, and direct parallels will be identified. In this way, it will be possible to assess the extent to which Patañjali was influenced by Jaina philosophy and to recognise those elements within Pātañjalayoga that originate in the ancient doctrine of the Jainas.

The Pātañjalayogaśāstra

Although little historical detail is known about the author Patañjali, it is likely that he was a Vaiṣṇava Brahmin who lived between 350 and 450 CE in central India in the region today known as western Madhya Pradesh (Maas 2020:1-10). The Pātañjalayogaśāstra is a Sanskrit work consisting of a layer of text containing 195 short aphorisms, known as the Yogasūtras, and an additional layer of commentarial text commonly referred to as the Yogabhāṣya. Although from the fourteenth century onwards, the Yogabhāṣya has been ascribed to an author named Vyāsa, recent scholarship from Philipp Mass has established conclusively that Patañjali authored both the Yogasūtras and the Yogabhāṣya and that both layers together comprise one coherent whole (Maas 2013:57-69). Patañjali's main philosophical influence was a strand of Sāṃkhya, thought to originate in the lost text, the Ṣaṣṭitantra3 (Maas 2020). The Pātañjalayogaśāstra also contains references to Brahmanical works such as the early Purāṇas and the Mahābhārata4, as well as numerous Buddhist ideas originating in the Tipiṭaka5 and the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya6.

The Pātañjalayogaśāstra defines yoga as "yogaścittavṛttinorodaḥ" - "the stopping of the turnings of the mind" (1.2) and propounds an ontology rooted in theistic Sāṃkhya. Patañjali's dualistic doctrine culminates in an experience of kaivalya (absoluteness) - complete isolation, in which the mind is subdued, and puruṣa (spirit) experiences itself uncoupled from its association with prakṛti (matter). Patañjali describes kaivalya as "absolute consciousness established in its own self" (Pātañjalayogaśāstra 4.34, Hariharānanda 1984: 405).

The Jainas

The Jainas were initially known as Nigaṇṭhas, "unattached ones", until approximately the ninth century, when they became popularly known as Jainas, meaning "follower[s] of a Jina" (Jaini 2001:2). Jina means 'conquerer' (Dundas 2002:3) and refers to one who has successfully crossed the ocean of saṃsāra (wandering) and achieved a state of kevalajñāna (absolute knowledge7). The Jainas follow a salvific doctrine of mokṣa (liberation), as realised and taught by twenty-four Jinas known as Tīrthaṅkaras (ford makers). The two most recent Tīrthaṅkaras are Parśva, who lived in approximately the eighth to seventh century BCE8, and Mahāvīra, who lived in approximately the fifth century BCE9. Teachings attributed to the Tīrthaṅkaras, and expanded upon by their disciples, have been preserved in numerous Jaina works, composed primarily in Prākrit, from the third to second century BCE10 .

Early Jainas did not employ the term yoga as it is popularly understood today. The Monier Williams dictionary defines the Jaina usage of the term yoga as "contact or mixing with the outer world" (856.8). The Daśavaikālika refers to yoga as "sāvajjaṃ jogaṃ" - "wrongdoing", and yoga was conceived as a type of unrestrained action. Although early Jainas pursued liberatory practices of self-control, these were not referred to as yoga but by terms such as saṃyama, samvara samiti and gupti. Yoga did not begin to take on a positive soteriological meaning within Jainism until the medieval period in texts such as Haribhadra's eighth-century11 Yogadṛṣṭisamuccaya and Hemacandra's twelfth-century Yogaśāstra12.

Rebirth and karma in Jainism

The Jainas propose a dualist ontology comprised of jīva (soul) and ajīva (non-soul), which broadly resembles the puruṣa-prakṛti binary of Patañjali's Sāṃkhyan doctrine. Innumerable jīvas inhabit a vast beginningless cosmos termed lokapuruṣa. Due to the effects of their actions (karman), the jīvas accrue physical bodies and become ensnared in an aeonic process of reincarnation and entanglement with ajīva. Rebirth takes place in human and non-human bodies, and Jaina texts refer to four gatis (modes) of rebirth: manuṣya (humans), tiryañca (plants and animals), deva (gods) and nāraki (hell-beings) (Jaini 1998:108). The eventual goal of the Jaina is liberation from the cycle of rebirth and ascension to a higher, eternally blissful realm (siddhaloka) inhabited entirely by liberated souls. The classification of the gati and the relative position of the kevalin (one who has attained kevalajñāna) is clearly articulated in the Kalpasūtra (ca. 2nd-1st Century BCE):

When the Venerable Ascetic Mahāvīra had become a Gina and Arhat, he was a Kevalin, omniscient and comprehending all objects; he knew and saw all conditions of the world, of gods, men and demons: whence they come, wither they go, whether they are born as men or animals (kyavana) or become gods or hell-beings (upapāda) (Kalpasūtra 121, Jacobi 2008:263-264; emphasis added).

The type of body assumed by the jīva is determined by the effects of karma (action), which is conceived as a quasi-physical transmutable substance that binds itself to the jīva. Unrestrained action (yoga) results in an influx (āsrava) of karma which conglomerates to form a causal vehicle for the jīva in one of the four gatis mentioned above. Karmic action directly contributes to the types of rebirth experienced by the jīvas: "All living beings owe their present form of existence to their own Karman" (Sūtrakṛtāṅga-sūtra, ca. 2nd Century BCE13, Jacobi 2018:260). For the Jainas, karma is more than an abstract concept or a law of moral retribution. Each human, or non-human body, is a composite product of the karma accumulated in previous lives. Likewise, future bodies will be determined by the karma accrued within the current lifespan. The solution proposed by early Jainas to the problem of karma and rebirth was to reduce action altogether. Consequently, ascetic inactivity became the method, de rigueur, for the attenuation and prevention of karma (Bronkhorst 2020: 168). The Uttarādhyayana-sūtra proposes: "first he stops the activity of his mind, then of his speech and body, then he puts a stop to breathing out and breathing in" (29.72 in Bronkhorst 2020:169).

Rebirth and karma in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra

Patañjali's thesis is based upon an ontological framework broadly resembling that of the early Jainas. Patañjali accepts the doctrine of reincarnation and posits four modes of rebirth, which exactly mirror the gatis of the Kalpasūtra. The third pada of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra includes the following narrative attributed to Bhagavān Jaigīṣavya14:

I have lived through ten cycles of creation and my mental essence has not been overpowered. I have experienced the sorrows of hell as well as of animal life. I have been born again and again as a Deva and as a man. But I consider all that I have been through, as pain (Pātañjalayogaśāstra 3.18, Hariharānanda 1984:290; emphasis added).

Patañjali proposes a similar relationship between rebirth and karma as the Jainas and attributes karma with three principle consequences: birth, lifespan and life experiences. (Hariharānanda 1984:357). Karma directly determines the nature of rebirth in one of the four modes of bodies and is experienced both in this lifetime and in the next: "It [karma] is experienced in present or future lives." (Yogasūtra 2.12, Bryant 2009:195). Patañjali attempts to resolve the problem of karma and rebirth in much the same way as the early Jainas: by taking direct action (or rather direct inaction) to mitigate and attenuate the effects of karma. The overarching narrative of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra is one of ascetic inactivity that resonates with the karmic aspirations of the early Jainas. The prime directive of the Pātañjalayogasastra is the reduction of mental activities: "yogaścittavṛttinorodaḥ" - "stopping the turnings of the mind" (1.2). Patañjali's kriyayoga proposes tapas (asceticism) - to extinguish karmic traces, and aṣṭāṅgayoga to cultivate the complete cessation of all activities: including those of the body, the breath and the mind (Pātañjalayogaśāstra 2.46 -3.7).

The karmic spectrum

The Jainas developed a sophisticated taxonomy of karma which is either ghātiyā (harmful) or aghātiyā (non-harmful)15. The Uttarādhyayana-sūtra describes eight types of karma and a number of subdivisions. Karma is also imbued with quasi-tangible qualities such as colour, taste and smell. The Uttarādhyayana-sūtra proposes a sixfold spectrum of karmic colours (lēsyās16) to denote the overriding karmic disposition of the embodied jīva: "They are named in the following order: black, blue, grey, red, yellow and white" (Uttarādhyayana-sūtra 34.2, Jacobi 2015:161). Within this sliding scale, those with the least self-control are attributed with black lēsyā, and those with the most self-control are attributed with white lēsyā.

Patañjali also attempts to apprehend the nature of karma, which he traces to five karmic afflictions (kleśa17) which must be overcome and "roasted like seeds" (Pātañjalayogaśāstra 2.2 Hariharānanda 1984:115). Like the Jainas, Patañjali uses colour to convey karmic tendencies, and in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, the embodied purusa is awarded a colour based upon its karmic disposition:

Karma is of four kinds - black, black-and-white, white and neither white nor black...The last variety, viz. neither white nor black karma, is the last phase in the bodily existence of yogins who have reduced their afflictions (Pātañjalayogaśāstra 4.7, Hariharānanda 1984:355).

Patañjali's karmic spectrum operates in much the same way as the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra. Those with the least spiritual merit are cast in black karma, and those with the most spiritual merit in white karma (Pātañjalayogaśāstra 4.7, Hariharānanda 1984:355). However, although Patañjali uses metaphor and colour to comprehend the nature of karma, he does not recognise karma as a binding, transmutable substance in the same manner as the Jainas. Paul Dundas has noted that the lēsyās are not unique to the Jainas and are a feature of other Indic traditions (Dundas 2002:100). Therefore, both the Jainas and Patañjali may have been influenced by other sources.

The five vows of the Jainas

At the heart of Jainism is a commitment to an ethical way of life which is harnessed within the broader directive of reducing and mitigating karma. This commitment is enacted through the observation of certain vows, which are upheld by Jainas even to this day. The earliest textual formulation of the Jaina vows occurs in the second-century BCE18 Acarānga-sūtra, which posits five vows, observed in a "thrice, threefold, manner"19 and purportedly undertaken by the twenty-fourth Tīrthaṅkara himself, Mahāvīra:

(i) I renounce all killing of living beings, whether subtle or gross, whether movable or immovable...
(ii) I renounce all vices of lying speech (arising) from anger or greed or fear or mirth...
(iii) I renounce all taking of anything not given, either in a village or a town or a wood...
(iv) I renounce all sexual pleasures, either with gods or men or animals...
(v) I renounce all attachments, whether little or much, small or great, living or lifeless

(Acarānga-sūtra II.15.i-v, Jacobi 2008:204-210, abbreviated).

The five ethical precepts of Patañjali

Patañjali places great emphasis on conduct, and a large portion of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra is devoted to an ethical code termed yama (restraint). Nine out of one hundred and ninety-five aphorisms are concerned with yama and a considerable amount of Patañjali's auto-commentary.20 Yama is the first auxiliary of Patañjali's eightfold yoga (aṣṭāṅgayoga) and comprises five ethical precepts:

The yamas are nonviolence (ahiṃsā), truthfulness (satya), refrainment from stealing (asteya), celibacy (bramacarya) and renunciation of [uncessary] possession (aparigraha) (Pātañjalayogaśāstra 2.30, Hariharānanda 1984:208).

Patañjali's five yamas are conceptually identical to the Jaina vows described in the Acarānga-sūtra and are also presented in the same order. Furthermore, in the attendant verse, Patañjali stresses the universal imperative of the yamas and refers to them collectively as "mahāvratam" - "the great vow" (Pātañjalayogaśāstra 2.31). Mahāvrata echoes terms used to denote the vows in the second to fifth century Jaina work, the Tattvarthasūtra21 (7.1-7.3), and has become a widely-recognised phrase within the Jaina lexicon. Patañjali's choice of word is significant. The import of the yamas is emphasised, and they are identified as a collective, universal vow, clearly aligned with the doctrine of the Jainas.

The likeness between the five vows of the Acarānga-sūtra and the five yamas of Patañjali is evident and Christopher Key Chapple has concluded that Patañjali's yamas: "are taken directly from the (presumably much) earlier Acarāngasūtra" (Chapple 2011:323). Five vows are similarly propounded in another early Jaina work, the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra22, which states: "One should keep the five great vows, viz. not to kill, to speak the truth, not to steal, to be chaste, to have no property whatsoever; a wise man should follow the law taught by the Jinas." (12:96).

The Tattvarthasūtra of Umāsvāti, a later Jain text contemporaneous with the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, also includes five vows. The Tattvarthasūtra is the first work from a Jaina milieu to express the Jaina doctrine in Sanskrit and therefore allows for a more direct textual comparison than earlier Prākrit works. Four of Umāvāti's five vows use the same Sanskrit terms as the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, although Patañjali employs negated-participles:

Tattvarthasūtra 7.1
Pātañjalayogaśāstra 2.30

himsa-ṇrta-steyā-brahma-parigrahebhyo-viratir vratam

ahiṁsā-satyāsteya-brahmacaryāparigrahā yamāḥ

"Abstinence from violence, falsehood, stealing, carnality and possessiveness - these are the vows."
(Tatia 2011:169)

"The yamas are nonviolence, truthfulness, refrainment from stealing, celibacy and renunciation of [unenessary] possessions."
(Bryant 2009:243)

The parallels between these verses are striking. However, it is difficult to reach any firm conclusion as to whether the Tattvarthasūtra directly influenced Patañjali. Both texts were composed in approximately the same period: between the second and fifth century. Due to their concurrence and the fallibility in accurately dating Sanskrit texts, it is uncertain which text was composed first. Irrespective of the origins of the verses, their similarity points towards a cross-pollination of ideas between the ancient Jaina tradition and burgeoning Pātañjalayoga tradition. The influence of Jainism on the Pātañjalayogaśāstra is later reciprocated in Jaina works such as Haribhadra's Yogadṛṣṭisamuccaya (c. 750 CE23) and Hemacandra's Yogaśāstra (ca.1150 CE24).


The most important vow of the Jainas is to refrain from committing acts of violence towards other living beings. This is underscored in numerous early Jaina works and has become a central tenet of the Jaina faith and perhaps the Jainas' most enduring legacy. Numerous references to nonviolence are found in early Jaina works. For example, the following verse is repeated several times in the Sūtrakṛtāṅga-sūtra (ca. 2nd Century BCE25): "This is the quintessence of wisdom: not to kill anything. He should cease to injure living beings whether they move or not, on high, below, and on earth. For this has been called the Nirvāna which consists of peace" (1.2.11, Jacobi 2018:311).

Likewise, the Pātañjalayogaśāstra stresses the importance of nonviolence above all else. Patañjali's commentarial expansion of the yamas (2.30) emphasises the necessity of nonviolence (ahiṃsā) which is placed at the foundation of aṣṭāṅgayoga above and beyond all the other precepts:

Of these [yamas], nonviolence is never causing harm in any way to any creature. The other rules and observances [niyamas] are rooted in it. They are practised in order to practise it, with the aim of perfecting it. They are being expounded only for the sake of bringing about its pure form (Pātañjalayogaśāstra 2.30, Mallinson & Singleton 2017: 80).


Pātañjalayoga and Jainism overlap on several broad doctrinal positions. Both are rooted in an ontological binary between matter and spirit that culminates in a state of salvific absoluteness and a complete discontinuum of worldly life. Whilst sharing general themes of ascetic self-control and liberation, more specific correlations emerge in the treatment of rebirth, karma and ethical conduct:

• Patañjali posits an interpretation of reincarnation which closely resembles that of early Jaina works. The Pātañjalayogaśāstra includes a description of four modes of rebirth which exactly mirror the gatis proposed in the Kalpasūtra.
• The Pātañjalayogaśāstra accepts the doctrine of karma which it links directly with the cycle of rebirth. Patañjali attempts to mitigate the effects of karma in much the same way as the Jainas - through a combined process of ascetic self-control and resolute inactivity. The Pātañjalayogaśāstra includes a spectrum of four karmic colours with parallels to the six lēsyās of the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra. However, this doctrine may originate in a source beyond both traditions.
• The early Jainas and Patañjali both place ethics at the very heart of their doctrines. Patañjali's five yamas are conceptually identical to the Jaina vows first proposed in the Acarānga-sūtra at least five centuries before the composition of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra. Patañjali frames the yamas as vows and uses the term Mahāvrata (the great vow), which later became a common term adopted by the Jainas.
• The Pātañjalayogaśāstra's emphasis on ahiṃsā is in complete accord with this central tenet of the Jaina tradition.

The above correspondences between the Pātañjalayogaśāstra and early Jaina works demonstrate that Patañjali understood Jaina philosophy and may have been well-versed in early Jaina works such as the Acarānga-sūtra and the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra. A range of other sources also influenced Patañjali, and both the Jainas and Patañjali drew inspiration from other contemporaneous Śramaṇic disciplines. It should be noted that Patañjali's four modes of rebirth and spectrum of karma occupy a relatively small portion of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra. Patañjali does not give detailed explanations of these ideas, confirming that they were not central to his philosophy. However, the great vow (Mahāvrata) plays a vital role in the formulation of Patañjali's aṣṭāṅgayoga yoga. Patañjali devotes a considerable portion of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra to discussing the yamas, which he implicitly aligns with the doctrine of the Jainas. Aṣṭāṅgayoga later became highly influential in the formulation of yoga praxis and is a schema adopted in numerous later yoga works, including Jaina works such as Hemacandra's Yogaśāstra. In the centuries following the composition of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, Jaina authors assimilated ideas from the Pātañjalayoga into their own Jainayoga methods.

The Pātañjalayogaśāstra is thus indebted to Jainism. Patañjali was influenced by Jaina philosophy, both in his ascetic worldview and in his understanding of karma and rebirth. Patañjali also directly appropriated and incorporated the ancient Jaina doctrine of ethics into the Pātañjalayogaśāstra. Given the status of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra as a seminal philosophical treatise and its enduring doctrinal legacy, the contribution of the Jainas to the development of yoga is clearly significant.


1) Maas 2020:1.
2) Dundas 2002:23.
3) The doctrine of the Ṣaṣṭitantra is summarised in the fifth-century Sāṃkhyakārikā (Maas 2020:4).
4) Maas 2020:9 -10.
5) Circa. 3rd century BCE (Muller 1899:19).
6) Circa 350 - 430 CE (Wujastyk 2018:38).
7) The Jaina' kevala is cognate with Patañjali's kaivalya and both terms indicate a condition of absoluteness. Although this is an interesting semantic parallel, similar terms are found in the Upaniṣads and other works.
8) Dundas 2002:30.
9) Bronkhorst 2020:1.
10) Dundas 2002: 23.
11) Chapple 2017:126.
12) Chapple 2017:126.
13) Bronkhorst 2020:171.
14) The hermit yogi, Jaigīṣavya is also featured in the Mahābhārata (9.49) the second-century Buddhist work the Buddhacarita (White 2011:72,145). It is unknown if Jaigīṣavya was affiliated with Jainism.
15) According to Paul Dundas (2002:99) this taxonomy has already become systematised by the time of the Vyākhyāprajñapti, a Jaina work which is contemporaneous with the Pātañjalayogaśāstra.
16) Schubring has pointed out that Jacobi interpreted the Jaina term lēsyā as cognate with the term kleśa (Schubring 2000:195). Kleśa is the term used by Patañjali to denote a karmic affliction.
17) Patañjali's klesas and corresponding klṣṭa (painful) and aklṣṭa (non-painful) mental impressions share affinities with the Jaina ghātiyā (harmful) and aghātiyā (non-harmful) karmans. However, it is difficult to discern a firm correlation between the two doctrines.
18) Dundas 2002: 23.
19) Each vow is applied to conditions of action, incitement and consent and applied to situations in the present, the past and in the future.
20) Pātañjalayogaśāstra 2.30, 2.3, 2.33-39 (Hariharānanda 1984:208-213,216-223).
21) The exact date of the Tattvarthasūtra is unclear. Nathmal Tatia dates the Tattvarthasūtra to approximately the second century, which places it before the Pātañjalayogaśāstra which Philipp Maas dates to approximately 400 CE (Tatia 2011:xvii, Maas 2020:1).
22) Circa second to first century BCE (Jacobi 2018:xl).
23) Chapple 2017:126
24) Chapple 2017:126
25) Bronkhorst 2020:171


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