Mahatma Gandhi and Patanjali

Mahatma Gandi followed the example of saintly persons before him in founding asramas or hermitage.  People residing in these asramas were supposed to follow broadly the yamas and niyamas laid down in the Yogasutra attributed to Patanjali, which constitute the first two of the eight “limbs” of the system of yoga described therein.  And of course Mahatma Gandhi himself tried to manifest them in his life as far as possible.  He is indeed well-known the world over for his espousal of non-violence (ahimsa) and truth (satya) and also known, specially in India, for his espousal of celibacy (brahmacarya).  These are listed among the five yamas in the Yogasutra (II.30).

Towards the end of his life, when the political situation in Indiabegan to slip out of his control, he wondered if he had rally perfected these virtues.  He tried to test, for instance, his commitment to celibacy, upon his failure to control the communal conflagration which was engulfing the country.  However, according to the Yogasutra, the fruit of celibacy is indefatigability (II.38).  The ability to pacify is the fruit of observing ahimsa or non-violence (II.35): tat sannidhau vairatyaagah.  Was Mahatma Gandhi testing himself for the wrong virtue?– Prof. Arvind Sharma, McGillUniversity. Chips from an Indic Workshop. MLBD [Motilal Banarsidass] Newsletter, July 2011. p. 16

More questions

Whenever I receive MLBD Newsletter, the first matter that I will read is Prof. Sharma’s scholarly article: Chips from an Indic Workshop.  He is one of the present day (modern) scholar on Hinduism whose views always helps me to resolve several complicated issues related with Hinduism that too comparing and applying to various other fields of subject, like dialogue, political, social etc. causes.

So when I received July 2011 issue of MLBD Newsletter, as usual with much interest I read the above article by Sharmaji.  As usual, again he left his own scholarly mark on this subject also.  But this article also raised few question to my mind—particularly with Gandhiji and Patanjali.  Because it is interesting to note that, according to Prof. Sharma Gandjiji set such condition for his ashramites to observe ‘yama’ and ‘niyama’ laid down in the Yogasutra attributed to Patanjali.?  Because as a great admirer of Gandhiji I read with a real interest to learn through the life of Gandhiji.  But I am not sure whether Ganndhiji ever set those rules of ‘yama’ and ‘niyama’ strictly based on Patanjali’s terms and aim or just he took those virtues independently from Patanjali’s reference and frame work of eight limbs of yoga system described in his Yoga Sutra?  Because I read Gandhiji’s Autobiography and don’t remember he ever mentioned about this there. [I have to recheck the book again].  At present I have started the reading the Collected Work of Gandhiji (100 volumes) and now I am reading only 9th volume.  So immediately I cannot referrer to the volume in which this point is referred.

Now the questions that come to my minds are:

  1. Did Gandhiji ever read Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and then based on its terms of reference set those rules of ‘yama’ and ‘niyama’.?  And if he ever read and used ‘yama and ‘niyama’ only based on them, yet are we sure he understood them in the entire context of Patanjali’s system of Yoga?
  2. Or did Gandhiji, like several other Indians, take certain ‘ideals and ideas’ from the long established tradition without referring, understanding and implementing the context of those ideals and ideas?  Because in India, ‘yoga’ is a common terms which is used and practiced with or without any reference to Patanjali YogaSutra.  For examples doing all kinds of  ‘asana’ are called as ‘doing yoga’. Various asanas used by all the yoga gurus are not prescribed by Patanjali.  But several asana centers are flourishing in the name of ‘Yoga centre’ that too with the name of Patanjali?!?
  3. The climax of Patanjali YogaSutra is to attain ‘samadhi’ the last and eight anga of his system.  All other limbs were only a means to attain it.  But Gandihi’s aim of brahmacarya and ahimsa are not with that aim.
  4. Patanjali’s fruits of brahmacarya and ahimsa is right in its immediate context of ‘yama’ and ‘niyama’ and overall context of eight limbs to reach samadhi.  But can we question Gandihi’s aim of following those ‘virtues’ by interpreting them based on Patanjali’s point of view?
  5. Gandhi could have used the common virtues like ‘brahmacarya’ and ‘ahimsa’, of course giving his own meaning to it.  Even if he referred Pantanjali, I am not sure whether he was aware of the meaning given by him in Sutra II: 35 & 38.  So interpreting Gandhiji’s life based on Patanjali won’t help us to assess him properly.  And Gandhiji never tested anything in his life for any wrong virtue, because virtue is virtue and when it becomes ‘wrong’ then it ceased to remain a virtue.@

These questions I raise neither to challenge Prof. Sharma’s view or defend Gandhiji.  But as a student of Hinduism, Prof. Sharma’s views only raises more questions than Mahatma Gandhi testing himself for the wrong virtue.


Yama consists of five rules: ahimsaa (non-injury), satya (truth), asteya (p.154) (non-stealing), brahmacarya (celibacy), and aparigraha (non-possession), whereas niyama consists of the following five: sauca (purity), santosa (contentment), tapas (austerity), svaadhyaaya (study), and iisvara-pranidhaana (devotion to God).  It has been said that ‘the five yamas and the five niyamas together constitute all that is necessary for a perfect moral and religious life.  They are, so to say, the ten commandments of yoga.[T.M.P. Mahadevan, Outlines of Hinduism, Bombay: Chetana Limited, 1971, p. 111]— Arvind Sharma, Hindusim and Human Rights, A Conceptual Approach, New Deli,Oxford, 2004. pp.154-55

@. Regarding this that Gandjiji never tested anything in his life for wrong virtue, I may over state my claim, as I am a great admirer of him.  However one incident in his early life inSouth Africais enough to prove this.  When he was credited as the ‘Asst. Supt. Indian Ambulance Corps’ to help the British in their Boar war, Gandhiji wrote the following to the Colonial Secretary, which is enough for me to believe in my claim about Gandhiji:

‘…among the officers mentioned is included my name, described as “Mr. Gandhi, Asst. Supt. Indian Ambulance Corps.”  If the extract is complete, according to my correspondent, no more officers of that Corps are thus mentioned.  It that be so, and if the credit given is to the Assistant Superintendent as such, it belongs to Mr. Shire, who was the only Gentleman in the Corps recognized as such….if I am entitled to any credit for having done my duty, it is due in a greater measure to Dr. Booth, now Dean of St. John’s, and to Mr. Shire, who spared no pains in making the Corps the success it proved to be…..’—124. LETTER TO COLONIAL SECRETARY. Durban, March 30, 1901, in Collected works of Gandhiji. Publications Division.  Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Govt. ofIndia. (1958), Third ed. Reprint. 1994 (100 volumes), Vol. III, p.181

Dayanand Bharati, Gurukulam,July 28, 2011


When I shared my views with Dr. Madhusudan Rao, he gave the following response:

My comments:

We do not know if Gandhi ever read Yogasutra but if he followed three out of five yamas, that he must at least have been ‘aware’ of yamas and niyamas of Patanjali is credible. Maybe you will find this out in your reading of his collected works.

On your second and third question:

That Gandhiji did not use ahimsa and satya to attain the final goal ‘samadhi’ we will never know; but given the way he has used say the ‘bible’ and read his philosophy into it so he could have done the same with Yogasutra. So I tend to agree with you that he takes a philosophy and gives a spin to it.

Your fourth question:

I agree that Sharmaji is pushing Yogasutra down Gandhiji’s throat. Also he says that when situation inIndiagot out of control, Gandhiji tested his commitment to celibacy. This claim needs to be proved.

Your fifth question:

“And Gandhiji never tested anything in his life for any wrong virtue, because virtue is virtue and when it becomes ‘wrong’ then it ceased to remain a virtue” Do we really known if this is the case with Gandhiji? In questioning Sharmaji’s unproven claim (mentioned above) about Gandhiji testing his commitment to celibacy are we making another unproven claim that Gandhiji never tested anything for any wrong virtue. You may want to question Sharmaji’s claim without making another unproven claim.

I would give the benefit of doubt to Gandhiji that he might have atleast been aware of Patanjali’s yamas as he practiced and spoke about three out of five yamas. But again, Gandhiji was influenced by multiple philosophies and probably never believed any one philosophy ‘in toto’.

This is all I am able to come up with for now.