Maharishi Patañjali is believed to be an incarnation of Ananta or Ādiśeṣa, the divine serpent upon whom Lord Viṣṇu reclines. Accordingly, he is depicted in a half-serpent and half-human form. His mother is believed to have been a great Yoginī named Goṇikā. It is believed she once prayed to Sūrya (Sun God) to bestow upon her a son and a disciple. It is believed that Patañjali fell (पत्) right into her cupped palms (अञ्जलिः) and therefore came to be known as Patañjali. According to the Tamil Siddha tradition, Patañjali is one of the 18 Siddhars, and according to Tirumūlar’s Tirumandiram, Patañjali is one of the eight disciples to have studied Yogam directly from Nandi-deva. Although the traditional narratives vary with regards to the Maharṣi’s origin and life, there is little dispute regarding His stupendous accomplishments as a Yogī.
Traditionally, three works are attributed to the genius of Patañjali – Yoga-sūtra, Mahābhāṣya and Caraka-pratisaṃskṛta. Yoga-sūtra, Patañjali’s most renowned work, is a compendium of aphorisms regarding Yoga-śāstra. Mahabhāṣya is the celebrated commentary to the Aṣṭādhyāyī of Paṇini, a extensive grammatical work, and the Caraka-pratisaṃskṛta is an extinct treatise on Āyurveda. This three-pronged contribution of Patañjali is the basis for the following popular Śloka of Śivarāma in his commentary to the Vāsavadattā, a classical work –
योगेन चित्तस्य पदेन वाचां मलं शरीरस्य च वैद्यकेन।
योऽपाकरोत्तं प्रवरं मुनीनां पतञ्जलिं प्राञ्जलिरानतोऽस्मि॥
yogena cittasya padena vācāṁ malaṁ śarīrasya ca vaidyakena|
yo’pākarot-taṁ pravaraṁ munīnāṁ patañjaliṁ prāñjalir-ānato’smi||
To Him, Patañjali, my reverential obeisance, who with Yoga-Śāstra (Yoga-sūtra) did away with the dross of the mind, with Pada-Śāstra (Mahabhāṣya) did away with the impurities of the tongue, and with Vaidya-Śāstra (Caraka-pratisaṃskṛta,) drove away the ailments of the body.
Several traditional texts owe their origin to inspiration/knowledge found in the Yoga-Sūtras of Patañjali. Yoga-vāsiṣṭha, Śiva-saṃhitā, Gheraṇḍa-saṃhitā, Haṭhayoga-pradīpikā, are a few such texts. The Yoga-sūtras seem to have spread far and wide, even in the ancient world. An Arabic translation of the Yoga-sūtras called ‘Kitāb Patañjal’ attributed to the Persian scholar Al-Birūnī is a notable one. The Indonesian text ‘Dharma-Patañjala’ composed in the island of Java is an extant treatise of great importance to the Indonesian-Hindu tradition to this day. Interest in the Yoga-sūtras has only increased with the passage of time. Today the Sūtras have become the subject of in-depth academic research at Universities across the globe. Cognitive scientists and prominent Physicists like Prof. Dr. David Bohm and Prof. Dr. Harold Dean Brown express their fascination with the work. The treatise is authoritative text on the nature of the mind and the traditional methodology employed in stilling the mind.