A Study in comparison of the two Greatest Scriptures on Yoga

The Yoga Sutras compiled by Rishi Patanjali

The Bhagavad Gita, considered one of the three pillars of Sanatana Dharma

1) Introduction

Most people who practice yoga asanas, especially in the west, are well aware of the Yoga Sutras as an authoritative text on yoga in the form of aphorisms (concise statements of scientific principles) on yoga, codified by Rishi Patanjali. However, not many know that there is another Yoga Shastra (authoritative scripture on yoga), which is considered by many to be the holiest of the holy scriptures. This is the Bhagavad Gita. In fact the Bhagavad Gita is not just a Yoga Shastra, it is a condensation of the Upanishads and the the essence of Brahma Vidya (knowledge of the Brahman, the supreme entity that permeates everything). In this article, we will look at a study in comparison of these two texts, the greatest of the scriptures on yoga to understand the core of yoga philosophy. This article is also meant to serve as a prologue for the four class series "An Introduction to the Yoga Shastras and Philosophy", starting Aug. 19, 2023. The purpose of this series is :

After completing this introduction, later this year, we will start a complete study of the Yoga Shastras, using the Yoga Sutras as the curriculum basis and the Bhagavad Gita as ornaments.

Every chapter of the Bhagavad Gita ends with the following verse "Thus in the Bhagavad Gita, which is a Upanishad, the knowledge of the Brahman, a Yoga Shastra, a dialog between Shri Krishna and Arjuna, the chapter X titled XXX, is concluded"

2) Scientific treatise versus Poetry

The Yoga Sutras are written as a scientific doctrine about all aspects of yoga. Sutras, because of their concise nature, need to follow certain rules which are outlined below (Source: Vaayu puraaNa, before 500 BCE):

अल्पाक्षरम् असन्दिग्धम् सारवत् विश्वतो मुखम् ।

अस्तोभम् अनवद्यम् च सूत्र: सूत्रविदो विदु: ॥

alpAkSharam asandigdham sAravat vishvato mukham |

astobham anavadyam cha sUtra: sUtravido vidu: ||

alpAksharam - Concise

asandigdham - unambiguous 

sAravat - containing only the essence of the subject at hand 

vishvatomukham - all encompassing

astobham - devoid of fillers and repetition

anavadyam - irrefutable 

The Bhagavad Gita, on the other hand is written as poetry, and placed in what many people consider to be the greatest epic, the Mahabharatha. It is written as a dialog between Krishna, the God incarnated on the earth, and Prince Arjuna. The dialog happens on the battlefield, in the eleventh hour, just before the commencement of the battle, when Arjuna is grief stricken at the thought of fighting and killing his own relatives, who are fighting for the evil prince, Duryodhana. 

Yoga Sutras : A concise scientific doctrine in the form of aphorisms, that appeals to the intellect 

The Bhagavad Gita, the lord's song, is a poetry that is written to melt one's heart, with words and the meter chosen aptly to achieve the desired purpose. 

2.1) Choice of language

The choice of language used in the Yoga Sutras is very intellectual and formal, just as in a scientific document. For example, the word "Bhakti" (devotion) is not used in the Yoga Sutras. Instead, the word "Pranidhana" is used. The word Bhakti appeals to the emotions whereas the word Pranidhana appeals to the intellect due to its formal and scientific nature. The word "Jiva", that which lives (inside this body), which refers to the Atma, is quite frequently used in the Bhagavad Gita, whereas the word "Dhrashta" (the seer) is used, instead, in the Yoga Sutras.  This aspect is further elaborated in the sections below.

2.2) Sensationalism- "Where there is Krishna, there is action and lack of boredum":  

The Yoga sutras present topics as a matter of fact without sensationalism. Even in the chapter on Vibhutis (super powers from yoga), the powers (Siddhis) from yoga are merely stated and sometimes, the limitation of the superpower is also stated. For example, sutra 3.19 states :

प्रत्ययस्य परचित्तज्ञानम्॥१९॥

pratyayasya para-citta-jñānam ॥19॥

By meditating on the Pratyaya (the screen of one's mind where the images and sounds are constantly played), the knowledge of other's mind arises (YS 3.19).

However, the next sutra qualifies this statement, and describes the limitation of this Vibhuti, by saying:

न च तत् सालम्बनं तस्याविषयीभूतत्वात्॥२०॥

 na ca tat sālambanaṁ tasya-aviṣayī bhūtatvāt ॥20॥

However, this does not include the supporting motive behind the thought in the other person’s mind (YS 3.20).

Sutra 3.20, therefore qualifies 3.19 and says that even if one can read other's mind and find the thoughts and emotions like fear contained in the mind, one cannot find the cause of that thought or emotion. Therefore the Yoga Sutras are written precisely, even in the context of super human powers that arise from yoga, by stating the limitations and constraints of these capabilities. On the other hand, the Bhagavad Gita is full of sensational verses, so much so, that it grips one's attention powerfully. Bhagavan Krishna uses strong language, as needed, to drive home certain points. For instance, in the 16th chapter, titled, "Daivāsura Sampad Vibhāg Yoga", the distinction of the divine and the demonic qualities (in humans), Krishna severly criticizes people with predominantly demonic qualities- arrogance, greed for power and causing harm to others. He says in verses 19 and 20, 

तानहं द्विषत: क्रूरान्संसारेषु नराधमान् |
क्षिपाम्यजस्रमशुभानासुरीष्वेव योनिषु || 19||
आसुरीं योनिमापन्ना मूढा जन्मनि जन्मनि |
मामप्राप्यैव कौन्तेय ततो यान्त्यधमां गतिम् || 20||

tān ahaṁ dviṣhataḥ krūrān sansāreṣhu narādhamān
kṣhipāmy ajasram aśhubhān āsurīṣhv eva yoniṣhu
āsurīṁ yonim āpannā mūḍhā janmani janmani
mām aprāpyaiva kaunteya tato yānty adhamāṁ gatim

These cruel and hateful persons, the vile and vicious of humankind, I constantly hurl into the wombs of those with similar demoniac natures in the cycle of rebirth in the material world. These ignorant souls take birth again and again in demoniac wombs. Failing to reach Me, O Arjun, they gradually sink to the most abominable type of existence (BG 16.19 and 16.20).

Divine and demonic qualities explained in the 16th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita

 Further, in chapter 17, he criticizes people who perform tapas (austerity) by tormenting their bodies to achieve name and fame. This is a stern reminder for modern day yoga practitioners who torment their bodies (and that of their students), under the misguided notion of tapas (Ref: Yoga not enjoined by the scriptures). The Yoga Sutras, on the other hand, briefly mention these qualities under the Yama and Niyamas (external and internal restraints), and ascribe the negative qualities to the "Vrittis", the mental fluctuations, often turbulent. Being a scientific document, the yoga sutras do not use sharp criticism.

2.3) The element of repetition

We saw, above, that by definition, to be qualified as sutras, they should contain no repetition (Astobham). Some people refuse to accept the Yoga Sutras as Sutras, because it contains the phrase "Ishwara Pranidhana", surrender to Ishwara (the divine) twice, once in 1.23 and then, again in 2.45.


 īśvara-praṇidhānād-vā ॥23॥

(Success in meditation) can also be gained through surrender to Ishwara (YS 1.23).


 samādhi siddhiḥ-īśvarapraṇidhānāt ॥45॥

Success in Samadhi comes from Surrender to Ishwara (YS 1.45).

Others argue, that Patanjali deliberately did this to stress the importance of Ishwara, which is where the Yoga philosophy differs from it's sister Sankhya Philosophy, which has no reference to Ishwara and does not rely on Ishwara to explain all its components. 

The yoga sutras do not repeat concepts, in general, but does repeat the capability to still the mind by surrender to Ishwara, highlighting the importance of Ishwara

The Bhagavad Gita is written for the lay person, through Arjuna, and therefore contains many repetitions to drive home various concepts

The Bhagavad Gita, on the other hand, is full of repetitions because the receptor of the teachings was a confused and grief-stricken prince, Arjuna, who Krishna wants to fight the war at hand. Arjuna's situation represents the human condition and since we require repeated instructions to fully understand most things, Krishna uses this tactic in the Bhagavad Gita. Several shlokas contain the reuse of a significant portion of previous Shlokas. One such example can be found in two shlokas, 2.61 from the second chapter and 6.14 from the sixth chapter.

One very important concept that Krishna talks about in the second chapter is that of control of the senses, and the definition of a person of steady wisdom, Sthitaprajña (स्थितप्रज्ञ), gained through sense control. Since the second chapter is a condensation of the entire Gita, or a prologue of the Gita, this concept later lays the foundation for the sixth chapter, Dhyana Yoga, or the Yoga of Meditation. The two shlokas are mentioned below:

तानि सर्वाणि संयम्य युक्त आसीत मत्पर: |
वशे हि यस्येन्द्रियाणि तस्य प्रज्ञा प्रतिष्ठिता || 2.61||

tāni sarvāṇi sanyamya yukta āsīta mat-paraḥ
vaśhe hi yasyendriyāṇi tasya prajñā pratiṣhṭhitā

They are established in perfect knowledge, who subdue their senses and keep their minds ever absorbed in Me (BG 2.61).

प्रशान्तात्मा विगतभीर्ब्रह्मचारिव्रते स्थित: |
मन: संयम्य मच्चित्तो युक्त आसीत मत्पर: || 6.14||

praśhāntātmā vigata-bhīr brahmachāri-vrate sthitaḥ
manaḥ sanyamya mach-chitto yukta āsīta mat-paraḥ

Serene in the self and fearless, firm in the vow of brahmacharya, with the mind controlled and thinking of me, they should sit in yoga, thinking of me as the supreme (BG 6.14).

3) Smriti vs Shruti 

The scriptures of the Sanatana Dharma can broadly be divided into Shruti (श्रुति) and Smriti (स्मृति).  Shruti refers to those scriptures that were "heard" or revealed to sages in their deep meditation. The word Shruti literally means that which is heard. These are considered the word of the divine and therefore, considered to be  "Pramāṇa"(प्रमाण) or the authority. For the reason of being the word of the supreme, or the Brahman, they do not have human authorship associated with them. i.e. they are anonymous. Shruti includes the Vedas. Towards the end of the Vedas come the Vedanta, also known as the Upanishads. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna borrows phrases liberally from the Upanishads with Kathopanishad being his favorite to borrow from. 

Smriti refers to those  scriptures that have been written down from memory. They have an author. Smriti includes the Yoga Sutras and the Ithihasas (the epics). The position of the Bhagavad Gita could seemingly be confusing. Since it is embedded in the Mahabharata, which is one of the two Ithihasas (that which happened and recounted as such), it strictly speaking should be considered a Smriti. However, since it is the word of the divine (Shri Krishna) and is nothing but a condensation of the Upanishads, it is considered equivalent to a Shruti. Therefore it is considered the ultimate scriptural authority. 

The vedas are revealed knowledge transmitted orally over generations

4) Yoga vs Vedanta Philosophy

The ancient Indian philosophy system is divided into six branches called the "Shad-Darshanas", or the six views. They generally deal with the some or all of the following four topics:

1. Existence and nature of Brahman

2. Nature of the jiva or the individual soul

3. Creation of the jagat or the world.

4. Moksha or liberation from the cycle of Samsara (births and deaths) and the disciplines that lead to it.

The yoga philosophy and the Vedanta philosophy are two of the six. Vedanta includes aspects of Yoga as a means to prepare the mind for study of the scriptures. Whereas the Yoga system believes in liberation (Moksha) through advanced stages of meditation, the Vedanta system believes in a two fold path to gain Moksha. These are:

The main difference between the two is therefore, in how liberation is attained. There are other differences between the two also. Whereas Yoga believes in many Purushas (individual atmas), Vedanta believes in one Purusha (also called the Purushottama or the Supreme Purusha) which takes form as individual Atmas. This is clearly stated in verse 15.7 in the Bhagavad Gita :

ममैवांशो जीवलोके जीवभूत: सनातन: |
मन:षष्ठानीन्द्रियाणि प्रकृतिस्थानि कर्षति || 7||

mamaivānśho jīva-loke jīva-bhūtaḥ sanātanaḥ
manaḥ-ṣhaṣhṭhānīndriyāṇi prakṛiti-sthāni karṣhati

An eternal portion of me, having become the Jiva in the world of Jivas, attracts the five senses, and the mind as the sixth sense, and abides in Prakriti (nature). 

The differences, however, in the grand scheme of things, between the Yoga philosophy as described in the yoga sutras and the Vedanta philosophy, as described in the Bhagavad Gita, are very small and the core of both texts is Atma Jnanam or knowledge of the self (i.e. the atma).

5) Mantras and meters used for chanting

The yoga sutras are aphorisms and do not follow a meter for chanting. The shlokas in the Bhagavad Gita, on the other hand, are considered as mantras, which means they have the power to influence the mind. The choice of words are aptly chosen and they are recited in a certain meter. The two meters (with variants in each) used in the Bhagavad Gita are the Anushtubh (अनुष्टुभ्, the most common) and the Tristubh (त्रिष्टुभ्). Traditionally, people memorize the Bhagavad Gita before understanding the meaning. When the meter is followed, the shlokas are easier to memorize and they also have a significant influence on the mind

6) Conclusion

In conclusion, this article is meant as a comparison of the two great yoga scriptures, the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita.