The Arabic Translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras made by Al-Biruni. The Problem of Yoga Impact on Sufism

“And when these [Hindu] books were read to me letter by letter

and I comprehended their contents, my conscience could

 in no way have me fail to impart them to those yearning to read them. After all,

avarice is the worst crime and the deepest sin when it is related to knowledge” .


It was at Vienna conference «Yoga in Transformation…» that I for the first time happened to hear about Kitab Batanjal when Noemie Verdon, the doctoral candidate from Lausanne University, was giving her lecture dedicated to this book. As far as I have understood, the lecturer is today just about the only one world expert in this manuscript, and so I was really lucky to have met this source.

The manuscript of “Batanjal” translation made by Al-Biruni was found by L. Massignon in early 1920-ies in Köprülü Library of Istanbul under ref. No 1589 (see L.Massignon, Essai sur les origines du lexique technique de la mystique musulmane, Paris, 1922, p. 79; 2nd edition. Paris, 1954, p. 97). It was I. Hauer in 1930 who wrote about this manuscript. In the following years it was studied by H. Ritter who published two articles dedicated to this subject: one of them – alas! – in Arabic in 1955 in Cairo, and the second one (another alas!) – the same year in Teheran, in Persian, in the second volume of collection of works issued in memory of Ibn Sina. Finally, in 1956 the same very scientist published the complete Arabian text of this work in Oriens magazine (Leiden). It took 34 pages of text. According to both of the mentioned authors “the manuscript is hard reading, it’s been overwritten negligently, sometimes without diacritical points, with numerous mistakes made”. Subsequently it took Shlomo Pines and Tuvia Gelblum ca. two decades to do the English translation and to publish it in chapters:


  1. Al-Biruni’s Arabic Version of Patañjali’s “Yogasutra”
Shlomo Pines; Tuvia Gelblum
Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London > Vol. 29, No. 2 (1966), pp. 302-325
  2. Al- Biruni’s Arabic Version of Patañjali’s “Yogasutra”: A Translation of the Second Chapter and a Comparison with Related Texts
Shlomo Pines; Tuvia Gelblum
Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London > Vol. 40, No. 3 (1977), pp. 522-549
  3. Al- Biruni’s Arabic Version of Patañjali’s “Yogasutra”: A Translation of the Third Chapter and a Comparison with Related Texts
Shlomo Pines; Tuvia Gelblum
Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London > Vol. 46, No. 2 (1983), pp. 258-304
  4. Al- Biruni’s ‘s Arabic Version of Patañjali’s “Yogasutra”: A Translation of the Fourth Chapter and a Comparison with Related Texts
Shlomo Pines; Tuvia Gelblum
Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London > Vol. 52, No. 2 (1989), pp. 265-305


To be precise we should say that Kitab Batanjal (the complete title is Kitab batanjal al-hindi fi’l-khitif min al-amtfial”) is not a verbatim translation but rather a literally adapted exposition of Yoga concepts and ideas that had been given in the Sutras and its commentaries. This type of text structure that differs much from Yoga Sutras’ original laconism made some scientists hit upon an opinion that the work contained the thoughts from some of Yoga Sutras commentary that has not survived. Dasgupta [1] gives even a more drastic proposition stating that Kitab Batanjal might be the translation of an unknown book authored by other Patanjali that was written in the first two or three centuries of our era and is not extant. However, as it has been fairly noted by Sh. Pines, the “Kitab Batanjal” interpreter into English, Dasgupta could not have seen the original manuscript at the time when he was writing his book and thus his judgments about the book were based upon Biruni’s self-citation in his “India”. On his part Pines proves that Biruni has included into his translation the ideas from several texts, in particular those Yoga-Bhashya and Tattva-Vaishradi that we have more than once mentioned, but he notes that the ideas may have not been recited from the books themselves yet borrowed from the “traditional” ideas about these subjects that were existing at that time. The book has been written in form of a detailed dialogue, maybe between a student who asks questions and Patanjali as a Yoga connoisseur. The sequence and the contents of the questions comply with Yoga Sutras lines. Concerning his specific manner of translating Indian texts Biruni himself wrote the following:


“Their books are composed according to metres, and the texts are provided with commentaries in such a way that a complete and accurate translation is difficult, because the commentators are concerned with grammar and etymology and other (matters) which are of use only to a (person) who is versed in their literary languages (R, 168) as distinct from the vernacular. For this reason I was obliged to amalgamate in (my) translation the text with that over-lengthy commentary to arrange the work  in a way which resembles (a dialogue consisting of) questions and answers, and to omit (the parts which) are concerned with grammar and language. This is an apology which I offer because of the difference in size of the book in the two languages, if such a comparison is made. (I do this) in order that no one should think that this (difference) is due to remissness in (the rendering of) the meaning. Indeed he should be assured that it is due to a condensation of what (otherwise) would be troublesome (in its) prolixness” [cited after: Al-Biruni’s Arabic version of Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra: A Translation of his first Chapter and a Comparison with Related Sanskrit Texts, By Shlomo Pines and Tuvia Gelblum – transl.note].


It is interesting that having saturated myself in the subject I have learnt that in the Soviet Arab studies, in particular, in the preface to the collection of Biruni works issued by the UzSSR Academy of Sciences, the treatise had been mentioned even earlier than its English translation was published. Probably the Soviet school of Oriental studies was really a top-level one though its works were not well known to the Western world. The Iron Curtain still does mean a tragedy for the science as a world-wide institution.


It is natural that while I was listening to the lecture on Kitab Batanjal the question of “hasn’t this text in a way affected the establishment and development of the Sufi tradition?” immediately occurred to me. Unfortunately this issue has not been considered by the lecturer since she is not an expert in Sufism, and thus I have tried to start preliminary investigations into the question myself. I didn’t have the text of the translation then, and so during the break I asked the lecturer about the way Biruni had translated the 2nd sutra – yoga chitta vritti nirodhah. And I was absolutely delighted to hear that the word used by Biruni to translate chitta was nafs. Vritti was translated by the Arabic word that is correlated to the English “forces” while nirodha came as “control”. I shall remind that nafs is one of the key categories in Sufism [2]. The control of nafs is one of the Sufism interim goals. So, Yoga and Sufism started to appear as being bridged! If we take into account that nafs is equivalent to the Greek psyche this might mean that Biruni has in fact determined yoga as control over psychical energies! I believe this to be the most brilliant understanding of the core point of yoga teaching among all those possible. And of course this is a cut above all translations of our days that have it as something like “cessation of the mind activity”.

So, the bridges between Yoga and Sufism are obvious. But has Kitab Batanjal affected that forming of Sufi practices? The question was so far open and so I started my investigation.


First of all, some words about Biruni proper. Abū al-Rayhān Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Bīrūnī (973-1048 (50?)) was an outstanding Arabian all-round scholar. The scale of his scientific activity can be judged by the number of the books authored by him (ca. 150) though only half of them are extant. Yet this is a very impressive half! There are works on astronomy, mineralogy, geometry, pharmacognosy, philosophy, applied mathematics and other scientific fields. The profundity of the books really amazes. For instance, his famous book “India, an Accurate Description of All Categories of Hindu Thought, AS Well These Which Are Admissible As Those Which Must Be Rejected” in its Russian translation is ca. 300 pages thick. The author exposes the deepest knowledge of both Indian realias (the castes, the systems of administration and even the system of weights and measures) as well as the philosophy of Samkhya and Bhagavad Gita. This book even today comes as the most valuable source of information about medieval India. As for me personally, I was astonished by the profundity of this treatise. But for his native Khwarezmian language Biruni spoke Arabic, Persian, Greek, Latin, Turkish, Syrian languages, as well as Hebrew, Sanskrit and Hindi. And the translations he made were not only into Arabic languages. For instance, among his works there is a translation of Ptolemy’s ‘Almagest’ into Sanskrit! It may be Biruni whom we owe modern Indian astrology.



Was Biruni a Sufi? Almost all Sufi web-sites mention his name alongside with other great Sufis… but none of the orders are sure in listing him among those who are “one of them”. His Sufi teachers and students are not mentioned as well, though I am convinced that in case they did exist this would have been for sure “publicized”. Such ambiguity may have emerged due to the fact that at the time of Biruni the Sufism, as well as Sufi orders, were yet at the stage of their formation and one’s membership of it was more vague and democratic. The period of establishment and spiritual ferment is in general the most interesting time in every spiritual tradition living cycle. The strict canon is not yet set; the Teaching attracts active and creative people who are capable to search and to transform. Later on it becomes correct, sound and boring, and the things are no longer run by creators and charismatic persons, the bearers of their own mystic experience, yet by the text experts who study “thoroughly” the experience of others that has been described by some third persons… By the way Biruni himself considered the word ‘sufi’ to originate from the Greek «sophуs» – the wise man – and never from the Arabic ‘suf’ – the woolen cloak; the same thing, he believed the term ‘tasawwuf’ to be a corrupted version of the Greek “philosopher”!!! Of course, neither of modern Sufism schools agrees with him (sure, what’s the Greeks got to do here!) yet I think that Biruni as one of the fathers knew it better. In this sense, according to his own definition, Biruni was a Sufi. Though, if truth be told, we should say that when he mentions Sufis (for instance, in that very “India…”) he refers to them in the third person. Whether because of scientific impartiality or due to some other reasons – I don’t know… Nevertheless, the absence of Biruni’s “entry” into official Sufi “lineages” makes one doubt whether the direct transmission of Patanjali’s ideas via apprentices was possible. On the other hand another thing still remains possible – the influence of the book itself upon “official” Sufis who had read it, or, as it rather often happens in esoteric “spiritual groups”, the influence of the idea uttered by one of the group members upon other clever people. So that, to speak in general, I was proceeding with my searching…

In my attempt to find a clue to the question I first of all turned to the works of Biruni proper. And this was not in vain because it has turned out that the problem that I was trying to resolve was the one that Biruni had been solving himself. In his “India…”  he has already made a comparative analysis of Indian Yoga, Greeks’ theories (!) and Sufism of his time.


“This book is not a polemical one. I shall not produce the arguments of our antagonists on order to refute such of them as I believe to be in the wrong. My book is nothing but a simple historic record of facts. I shall place before the reader the theories of the Hindus exactly as they are, and I shall mention in connection with them similar theories of the Greeks in order to show the relationship existing between them.  For the Greek philosophers, although aiming at truth in the abstract, never in all questions of popular bearing rise much above the customary exoteric expressions and tenets both of their religion and law.

Besides Greek ideas we shall only now and then mention those of the Sufis or of some one or other Christian sect, because in their notions regarding the transmigration of souls and the pantheistic doctrine of the unity of God with creation there is much in common between these systems.”

I will not be tiring the reader with plenty of citations and juxtapositions, I will just mention that in his India Biruni analyses the parallels between Yoga and Sufism and finds them to have a good number of common motives. Upon that he considers both doctrines to be fairly self-sufficient and clearly set. It is important to take notice that in his analysis of yoga he rather guesses the Greek and Islamic motives there than highlights some specific features that make it different from both of them. Moreover, Biruni first of all sees the cognitive function of yoga (that I totally agree with and that has been today almost forgotten in full), yet he does not emphasize the psycho-techniques for working with one’s emotional sphere. In order to illustrate the concepts of Biruni I will after all cite here the words from “India”. I’ve used the bold type to highlight the above-mentioned aspects:


“The following passage is taken from the book of Patanjali: – “The soul, being on all sides tied to ignorance, which is the case of its being fettered, is like rice in its cover. As long as it is there, it is capable of growing and ripening in the transition stages between being born and giving birth itself. But if the cover is taken off the rice, it ceases to develop in this way, and becomes stationary. The retribution [of the soul] depends on the various kinds of creatures through which it wanders, upon the extent of its life, whether it be long or short, und upon the particular kind of its happiness be it scanty or ample”.

The pupil asks: “What is the condition of the spirit when it has a claim to a recompense or has committed a crime, and is then entangled in a kind of new birth either in order to receive bliss or to be punished?”

The master says: “It migrates according to what it has previously done, fluctuating between happiness and misfortune, and alternately experiencing pain or pleasure”.

The pupil asks: “If a man commits something which necessitates a retribution for him in a different shape from that in which he has committed the thing, and if between both stages there is a great interval of time and the matter is forgotten, what then?”

The master answers: “It is the nature of action to adhere to the spirit, for action is its product, whilst the body is only an instrument for it. Forgetting does not apply to spiritual matters, for they lie outside of time, with the nature of which the notions of long and short duration are necessarily connected. Action, by adhering to the spirit, frames its nature and character into a condition similar to that one into which the soil will enter on its next migration. The soul in its purity knows this, and does not forget it; but the light of the soul is covered by turbid nature of the body as long as it is connected with the body. Then the soul is like a man who remembers a thing which he once knew, but then forgot in consequence of insanity or an illness or some intoxication which overpowered his mind. Do you not observe that little children are in high spirits when people wish them a long life, and are sorry when people imprecate upon them a speedy death? And what would the one thing or the other signify to them, if they had not tasted the sweetness of life and experienced the bitterness of death in former generations through which they had been migrating to undergo  the due course of retribution?”

The ancient Greeks agreed with the Hindus in this belief. Socrates says in the book Phaedo: “We are reminded in the tales of the ancients that the souls go from here to Hades, and then come from Hades to here; that the living originates from the dead, and that altogether things originate from their contraries. Therefore those who have died are among the living. Our souls lead in existence of their own in Hades. The soul of each man is glad or sorry at something, and contemplates this thing. This impressionable nature ties the soul to the body, nails it down to the body, and gives it, as it were, a bodily figure. The soul which is not pure cannot go to Hades. It quits the body still filled with its nature, and then migrates hastily into another body, in which it is, as it were, deposited and made fast. Therefore, it has no share in the living of the company of the unique, pure, divine essence”.

This is what Patanjali says about the knowledge which liberates the soul. In Sanskrit they call this liberation Moksha – i.e., the end.

According to the Hindus, the organs of the senses have been made for acquiring knowledge, and the pleasure which they afford has been created to stimulate people to research and investigation… In the book Gita we rea]: “Man is created for the purpose of knowing; and because knowing is always the same, man has been gifted with the same organs. If man were created for the purpose of acting, his organs would be different, as actions are different in consequence of the difference of the three primary forces. However, bodily nature is bent upon acting on account of its essential opposition to knowing. Besides, it wishes to invest action with pleasures which in reality are pains. But knowledge is such as to leave this nature behind itself prostrated on the earth like an opponent, and removes all darkness from the soul as an eclipse or clouds are removed from the sun”.

This resembles the opinion of Socrates, who thinks that the soul “being with the body, and wishing to inquire something, then is deceived by the body. But by cogitations something of its desires becomes clear to it. Therefore its cogitation takes place in that time when it is not disturbed by anything like hearing, seeing, or by any pain or pleasure, when it is quite by itself, and has as much as possible quitted he body and its companionship. In particular, the soul of the philosopher scorns the body, and wishes to be separate from it.”

“If we in our life did not make use of the body, nor had anything in common with it except in cases of necessity, if we were not inoculated with its nature, but were perfectly free from it, we should come near knowledge by getting rest from the ignorance of the body, and we should become pure by knowing ourselves as far as God would permit us. And it is only right to acknowledge that this is the truth”.

The doctrine of Patanjali is akin to that of the Sufi regarding being occupied in meditation of the Truth (i.e. God), for they say, “As long as you point to something, you are not a monist; but when the Truth seizes upon the object of your pointing and annihilates it, then there is no longer an indicating person nor an object indicated”.

There are some passages in in their system which show that they believe in the pantheistic union; e.g. one of them, being asked what is the Truth (God) gave the following answer: “How should I not know the being which is I in essence and Not-I in space? If I return once more into existence, thereby I am separated from him; if I am neglected (i.e. not born anew and set into the world), thereby I become light and become accustomed to the union” (sic).

Abu-Bekr Ash-shibli says: “Cast off all, and you will attain to us completely. Then you will exist; but you will not report about us to others as long as your doing is like ours”.

Abu-Yazid Albistami once being asked how he had attained his stage in Sufism, answered: “I cast off my own self as a serpent casts off its skin. Then I considered my own self [nafs], and found that I was He”, i.e. God.

The Sufi explain the Koranic passage (Sura 2, 68), “Tjen we spoke: Beat him with a part of her”, in the following manner: “In order to kill that which is dead in order to give life to it indicates that the heart does not become alive by the light of knowledge unless the body be killed by ascetic practice to such a degree that it does not anymore exist as a reality, but only in a formal way, whilst your heart is a reality on which no object of the formal world has any influence “

[cited after: Bīrūnī, Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad. Alberuni’s India.  — An English ed.,  — London :  Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1910. —  2 v. – transl.note].


The quoted fragment illustrates my earlier said words: Biruni was finding analogies between Yoga, the Greek philosophy and Sufirm, but without accentuating psychological subtleties of each of the traditions. In his understanding Yoga was similar to any other philosophic and ascetic doctrine yet it lost some specific individual features. Moreover, the features ascribed to Yoga by Biruni were much more religious-like if compared with the way they were described by Patanjali. Biruni considered God to be the only object of contemplation and in doing this he is inconsistent with introversive heart of Yoga. It was yet Dasgupta who paid attention to this fact by writing that “the difference of this system [i.e. the one exposed by Biruni – A.S.] from the Yogasutra are: (1) the conception of God has risen to such an importance that he has become the only object of meditation, and absorption in him is the goal; (2) the importance of the two methods of Yoga self-control as yama and niyama has been rduced to the minimum; (3) the value of the Yoga discipline as a separate means of salvation, apart from any connection with God, as we find it in the Yogasutra has been lost sight of; (4)  liberation and yoga are defined as absorption in God; (5) the introduction of Brahman; (6) the very significance of yoga as cittavrtti-nirodha is lost sight of; and (7) rasayana is introduced as one of the means of salvation” [cited after S. N. Dasgupta. Yoga Philosophy in Relation to Other Systems of Indian Thought – transl.note]. Though, as we remember, Dasgupta was not very correct about chitta-vritti-nirodhah himself.

Summing up the above-written we have to admit that Kitab Batanjal might not have had great influence upon Sufi doctrine and psycho-practices. The similarity in psychological techniques should be explained either by some earlier borrowings or – and this is more probable – by the fact they both had the same object of research – the human psyche.


[1] S. Dasgupta. Yoga Philosophy in Relation to Other Systems of Indian Thought.

[2] You can see details in my book dedicated to psychological practices or in “The Psychology of Sufism” by Nurbakhsh