By P. R. Kannan


A well known prayer to Sage Patanjali, written by Bhojaraja refers to his major contributions in three distinct fields.
“योगेन चित्तस्य पदेन वाचां मलं शरीरस्य च वैद्यकेन ।
योपाकरोत्तं प्रवरं मुनीनां पतञ्जलिं प्राञ्जलिरानतोस्मि॥“
“I bow with folded hands before Patanjali, the foremost among sages, who removed the defect of mind with Yoga, that of words with grammar and that of body with medicine.”

Sage Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are well known. Yoga has spread all over the world. However Patanjali is also credited with many other extraordinary achievements, as can be noted in the above verse. He is said to have written a work of reference on Ayurveda; this book is not available now, though some scholars think that Charakasamhita was indeed Patanjali’s work. He is more famously known for his authorship of ‘Mahabhashyam’, a great commentary on Panini’s Sutras on Sanskrit grammar, the Ashtaadhyayi. Above all, he, along with another great sage Vyaghrapada, had the first darshan of Lord Nataraja at Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu.

Darshan of Nataraja

Once when Lord Vishnu was lying on his serpent-bed in the Milky Ocean, Adi Sesha suddenly found that Vishnu was smiling in a state of extraordinary bliss and in that process his weight became unbearably heavy. Adi Sesha conveyed his pitiable plight to Vishnu and enquired of the reason for his sudden exuberance. Vishnu said: “I remembered my darshan of Lord Nataraja in Darukavana a long time back. I had at that time taken the form of Mohini and accompanied Siva, who was Bhikshatana. Siva wished to teach a lesson to the sages of Darukavana, who were immersed mechanically in the activity of Yagas and who wrongly interpreted the Vedas and thought that Karma alone, devoid of bhakti, would achieve Moksha. After the sages were enlightened on the correct import of Vedas and the necessity of bhakti, and the mission was accomplished, Siva, out of grace for the toiling sages, showed them the Cosmic Dance as Nataraja. I was a witness to that dance. My memory of that blissful occasion is fresh and that is why I became so happy.” This created an insatiable desire in Adi Sesha to witness the dance of Nataraja. When he pleaded before Vishnu, the latter asked him to proceed to Bhuloka and perform severe penance and please Siva. Adi Sesha appointed his son to serve as the bed for Vishnu in his absence and reached Bhuloka.

A woman by name Gonika, daughter of a certain sage, was offering Arghya to Surya. Adi Sesha took the form of a small snake and dropped down from the sky in her palms and on to the ground along with the Arghya waters. As he dropped from the cupped palms of the woman, he came to be known as Patanjali- पतन् अञ्जलितः- पतञ्जलि. The serpent form changed instantly into a boy with upper part of the body human and the lower, serpent. He left for forest in order to perform penance. After a long time Siva appeared in the form of Brahma and offered him the boon of lofty Siddhis (supernatural powers) and Vidyas. Patanjali declined and persisted in his aspiration to have darshan of Nataraja. Siva then asked him to proceed to Chidambaram. Patanjali pierced the ground, reached Nagaloka and came up through a Biladvara (mouth of cave) to Chidambaram. He established a Sivalinga in the western part of the town and worshipped intensely. This deity, known as Ananthiswara is ensconced in a small nice temple, adjacent to a tank called Nagacheri tank even today.

At the same time another sage known as Vyaghrapada was also praying with all his heart to Siva for darshan of Nataraja. He established and worshipped a Sivalinga, known as Sri Moolanatha. This shrine is situated inside the main Nataraja temple and can be seen even today. Vyaghrapada, who was earlier called Madhyandina, was the father of the famous sage Upamanyu. Mahabharata credits Upamanyu with praying to Siva even as a small child for milk and being blessed with the Ocean of Milk by Siva. He also initiated Lord Krishna into Siva mantra and taught him Siva Sahasranama Stotra. Vyaghrapada (meaning one with feet of tiger) had specially prayed to Siva and obtained the feet of tiger and eyes of bee in order to climb trees and pluck good flowers in the darkness of early mornings for use in Siva Pooja. So keen was he on being perfect in the worship of Siva. Both Patanjali and Vyaghrapada prayed very intensely for darshan of Lord Nataraja. Soon Viswakarma built the golden Sabha mantapam and made all preparations. On the sacred day of Pushya star in the month of Thai (Pousha), Siva with Parvathi alighted from his mount of bull with his left hand held by Vishnu. He blessed the two sages with divine eyes and danced ecstatically as Nataraja. The sages prayed to Nataraja that He should stay at Chidambaram for ever and grant darshan to all people at all times to come. Nataraja graciously agreed and has been there in the temple ever since, giving darshan to us all. On this occasion Nataraja asked Patanjali to write a commentary for Panini’s Ashtadhyayi, the authoritative work on Sanskrit grammar.

Panini’s Ashtadhyayi

Panini was a great sage, who, after a long penance, had darshan of Siva as Nataraja. At that time Nataraja sounded his Damaru (drum) fourteen times. These sounds were grasped by Panini as the famous fourteen Siva Sutras or Maheswara Sutras.
“नृत्तावसाने  नटराजराजो   ननाद   ढक्कां   नवपञ्चवारम् ।
उद्धर्त्तुकामः   सनकादिसिद्धा-नेतद्विमर्शे    शिवसूत्रजालम् ॥“
“Lord Nataraja sounded his Damaru fourteen times at the close of his dance. He thus brought out the Siva Sutras with a desire to uplift Siddhas like Sanaka and others.”

These Sutras are:
१. अ इ उ ण् |  २. ऋ ऌ क् |  ३. ए ओ ङ् |  ४. ऐ औ च् |  ५. ह य व र ट् |  ६. ल ण् |  ७. ञ म ङ ण न म् |
८. झ भ ञ् |  ९. घ ढ ध ष् |  १०. ज ब ग ड द श् |  ११. ख फ छ ठ थ च ट त व् |  १२. क प य् |
१३. श ष स र् |  १४. ह ल् |

These Maheswara Sutras are regularly chanted during Vedarambham at the time of Upakarma. It is interesting that these very brief and esoteric assemblages of sounds yielded to two different interpretations leading to two streams of thought. One was the pinnacle of spirituality and Advaita Vedanta, and Kashmir Saivism. A commentary, known as Kaasika, of the Siva Sutras explaining this spiritual import was written by Nandi himself. Explanation of the first Sutra from Nandi’s Kaasika is given below as an example.
अकारो ब्रह्मरूपः स्यान्निर्गुणः सर्ववस्तुषु ।
चित्कलामिं समाश्रित्य जगद्रूप उणीश्वरः ॥
“The letter अ represents Brahman, who is without attributes, even while pervading all objects. When Brahman unites with consciousness represented by the letter इ, he becomes Iswara, represented by the letter उ, who assumes the form of the universe.”

The second interpretation relates to Sanskrit grammar. Panini, believed to have been born in Gandhara (Khandahar in present-day Afghanistan), wrote his famous commentary of the Siva Sutras, called Ashtadhyayi, which consists of 3,959 sutras or rules, distributed among eight chapters, each subdivided into four sections or padas. This is regarded as the seminal and path-breaking text on Sanskrit grammar. Celebrated as extremely compact without sacrificing completeness, it would become the model for later specialist technical texts. It takes material from lexical lists (Dhatupatha, Ganapatha) as input and describes algorithms to be applied to them for the generation of well-formed words. It is highly systematised and technical. The rules have a reputation for perfection— that is, they are claimed to describe Sanskrit morphology fully, without any redundancy. Panini’s sophisticated logical rules and technique have been widely influential in ancient and modern linguistics. One Katyayana wrote Vaartika (explanatory rules) for Panini’s Ashtadhyayi.

Patanjali’s Mahabhashyam

It was left to Patanjali to author a detailed commentary of Panini’s Ashtadhyayi, as instructed by Lord Nataraja himself. Patanjali is one of the three most famous Sanskrit grammarians of ancient India, other two being Paṇini and Katyayana who preceded Patanjali. Katyayana's work (nearly 1500 vartikas on Paṇini) is available only through references in Patanjali's work. Patanjali’s Mahabhashya covers only 1228 out of 3959 Sutras of Panini. It is in 85 Ahnikas or sections.  Its diction is most elegant and has been considered as a model for Sanskrit prose. It was with Patanjali that the Indian tradition of language scholarship reached its definite form. The system thus established is extremely detailed as to shiksha (phonology, including accent) and vyakarana (grammar and morphology). Syntax is scarcely touched, because syntax is not important in this highly inflexional language, but nirukta (etymology) is discussed, and these etymologies naturally lead to semantic explanations. People interpret his work to be a defence of Paṇini, whose Sutras are elaborated in detail. Though Patanjali treats Katyayana’s work rather severely, it must be noted that Katyayana introduced semantic discourse into grammar, which was further elaborated by Patanjali to such an extent that the Mahabhaṣhya can be called a mix of grammar as such as well as a philosophy of grammar.

Once Patanjali completed his masterpiece, he decided to teach it to a large number of disciples. At Chidambaram he gathered a thousand students and asked them to sit in front of a screen during classes and he used to sit behind the screen and teach, unseen by them. They had been instructed strictly by the teacher never to attempt to pull the screen and see him during the class. As teaching proceeded, the students noted that the teaching and clarification of doubts was so individual student-oriented that they developed serious doubts as to how this is humanly possible for a single teacher. Hence curiosity prevailed over discipline and some students pulled the screen away during the class one day. All of them were instantly reduced to ashes by the poisonous breath from the thousand-hooded serpent Adi Sesha, who was actually teaching them with a thousand different mouths. One student luckily had gone out for answering the call of nature, but he had left the class without the teacher’s permission. When he returned, he found all his class-fellows in ashes and begged for mercy of the teacher. Patanjali cursed him to become a Brahma-rakshasa, as he had violated the disciple’s discipline of not leaving the class while in progress without permission. On the student’s pleading, Patanjali relaxed the curse saying that he would be freed from the curse, if he found a student in turn, who could answer a tricky question in Sanskrit grammar. Patanjali now taught him the rest of the Mahabhashyam and allowed him to go his way.

The student turned brahmarakshasa travelled north and reached Central India. Sitting atop a tree, he questioned a lot of passers-by as instructed by Patanjali. None was able to answer correctly. The brahmarakshasa would immediately devour the victim. Many years passed thus. Taking pity on his student-brahmarakshasa, Patanjali decided to meet him as a passer-by himself. He called himself Chandra Sarma from Ujjain and met his former student. The brahmarakshasa asked him the usual question: “निष्ठायां किं रूपं पचे:”- “What is the past participle of the root पच्”. Instead of the incorrect answer पचितं given by others, Chandra Sarma gave the correct answer पक्वं. The brahmarakshasa was relieved of the curse immediately. He then taught the entire Mahabhashyam to Chandra Sarma. In later years, the former student of Patanjali, who was freed of the terrible curse owing to Patanjali’s mercy, proceeded to Badrinath and became the great teacher of Advaita Vedanta, Gowdapada. He wrote the famous Mandukya Karika, an explanatory treatise on Mandukya Upanishad. Chandra Sarma, who was in fact Patanjali, became Govinda Bhagavatpada, the illustrious disciple of Gowdapada. Govinda Bhagavatpada in turn became the teacher of Adi Sankaracharya.

Patanjali’s Stotra

Patanjali has written a Stotra on Nataraja, which is known by the name of Charana Sringa Rahita stotram; it is also called Sambhu Natanam or Natesashtakam. The unique style of composition which the great grammarian has adopted in this Stotra is that, as the name indicates, there is no use of charana or sringa anywhere in the eight stanzas of the Stotra. Charana literally means foot; here it refers to दीर्घ, a long vowel, like in का. Sringa literally means horn; here it refers to the upper curved symbol like in कर्ता. It is interesting that Patanjali has composed a wonderful Stotra, which has a lilting tune of the jingle of the bells in the Dancing Nataraja’s anklet, without using the two commonly used features of grammar. The first stanza is given below.
सदञ्चित-मुदञ्चित निकुञ्चितपदं झलझलञ्चलित मञ्जुकटकं
पतञ्जलि दृगञ्जन-मनञ्जनं अचञ्चलपदं जनन भञ्जनकरम् ।
कदम्बरुचि-मम्बरवसं परम-मम्बुद कदम्बक विडम्बक गलं
चिदम्बुदमणिं बुध हृदम्बुजरविं पर चिदम्बर नटं हृदि भज ॥ (१)

“Worship in your heart Nataraja, who is adored by the virtuous; has a raised leg with bent foot; wears beautiful bracelets making a jingling sound; who is like the purifying collyrium for the eyes of Patanjali; free from impurities; with feet which do not move; who destroys (cycle of) births; beautiful like the kadamba tree; who has sky as garment; supreme; whose throat resembles cluster of rain bearing clouds; jewel in the ocean of consciousness; Sun blossoming the lotus-heart of the wise; who dances in the most sacred Chidambaram (or, in the heart-space of the pure).” (1)

May Sage Patanjali bless us with good and strong health, deep scholarship of languages and subjects, and intense devotion at the feet of Lord Nataraja.