The following two Sanskrit verses initiate the Bhojavrtti, a word-for-word explanation of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (second century B.C.E.), by the eleventh century savant king Bhojaraja.
Patanjali is also traditionally attributed with the seminal works on both medicine (the eighth century B.C.E. Caraka Samhita) and grammar (Panini’s third century B.C.E. Mahabhashya) thus the credit for purifying body, mind and speech.
Yogena cittasya padena vacam
by the yoga – of the mind – grammar – (for) speech
Malam sarirasya ca vaidyakena
impurities – of the body – also- (as a) physician
Yopa karot tam pravaram muninam
you – have done – most noble – sage
Patanjalim pranjalir anato ’smi
to Patanjali – saluting – I am
Abahu – perushakaram
with arms – (of a) human shape
sankha – cakrasi – dharinam
conch – discus – (and) sword (asi) – (he is) holding
Sahasra sirasam svetam
one thousand – headed – white
I salute – to Patanjali
Patanjali’s Symbolic Form
Each symbolic element reminds the yogin that the purpose of his life is to turn the mind inward and guide it towards illumination, liberation and Self-realization.
According to legend, Patanjali was born fully self-realized when the aged yogini Gonika, praying for a son to whom to impart her wisdom, offered a handful of water to the Sun God.
A tiny snake fell into the water and then took human form, whom she named Pata (“fallen”) – anjali (“hands folded in prayer”).
Patanjali is depicted as having the upper body of a human and the lower body of a coiled serpent. The three and a half coils represent the triguna (sattva, rajas and tamas) and the gunatita, the transcended state that lies beyond the influence of the gunas (PYS I.16 and IV.34).
It also represents kaivalya, liberation, through triple purification of body, mind and speech; the three types of afflictions that may be overcome through the practice of yoga (diseases of the bodily elements, genetic and self inflicted—VB I.31); and the three syllables of the sacred mantra AUM. (Mand. Up.)
Patanjali uses three weapons — a conch, a disc, and a sword — to restrain the citta vrttis, the movements of consciousness (PYS I.2), remove the obstacles (PYS I.29) and eradicate the afflictions (PYS IV.30).
The Sankha (Conch)
The buddhi (intellect) guides the mind towards sattva, illumination, and liberation — and away from rajas (excitement), tamas (dullness)and bhoga, (worldly enjoyment).
The sankha also alerts the practitioner to be ready to face the inevitable obstacles and afflictions of yoga practice (PYS I.30-31and PYS II.3).
The Cakra (Discus)
Krishna also used the discus as a weapon of enlightenment to cut off the heads of the tamasic demons.
The Asi (Sword — not shown)
The asi is tucked in the waist — to destroy avidya, spiritual ignorance, and cut the arrogance of asmita (egoism or pride) that covers the pure being (PYS II.3).
The Hood of the Thousand Headed Cobra
As the hood turns inward, so does the citta, consciousness, involute to concentrate only on the sight of the soul (atma darsana).
The thousand heads are the multitude of thoughts directed into a single pointed meditation. They also represent the multitude of ways in which Patanjali guides the yogin. The cobra’s white color signifies sattvic purity.
Patanjali’s crown represents sovereignty, the command that comes with sattvic illumination when the will is unimpeded by the obstacles of yoga.
The Four Arms
These represent the four aspects of the psyche: manas (mind), buddhi (intellect), ahamkara (ego), and citta (consciousness).
The Hands in Namaskara
Each palm represents the separate jivatman, the individual soul.
The five fingers are associated with the panca kosas, the five nested sheaths of the sarira (body): annamaya kosa (structural), pranamaya kosa (physiological), manomaya kosa (psychological), vijnanamaya kosa (intellectual) and anandamaya kosa (spiritual bliss).
The 3-1/2 Coils
The coils represent the divine kundalini energy that lays dormant and coiled at the muladhara cakra. When awakened, it winds through the body three and a half times from the base of the spine to the top of the head, at the sahasra cakra, the thousand petaled lotus.
Through the discipline of yoga to remove the obstacles, nature’s energy (Prakrti sakti) is able to flow freely and is attracted to its source like a magnet, where it unites with its Lord, Purusa. (PYS IV.3 and IV.26)
The three coils also refer to three major nadis (channels of subtle energy): the lunar ida on the left and the solar pingala on the right, both of which feed the susumna in the center. The divine citra nadi, which originates at the heart and extends to the head, is represented by the half coil.
B.K.S. Iyengar, “Chakras, Bandhas and Kriyas”, IYI Review of San Francisco, Vol.9 #3, Summer 1989. (Edited version in Seventy Glorious Years, Light on Yoga Research Trust, Bombay, 1990)
Geeta S. Iyengar, “The Origins of Yoga”, Yoga Rahasya, Vol. 3, No. 4, RIMYI 1996
Geeta S. Iyengar, “The Meaning of the Invocation”, A Teacher’s Exchange Souvenir Magazine, IYNAUS, 1996
Pandit Usharbudh Arya, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Himalayan Institute, Honesdale, PA, 1986
A. Parthasarathy, The Symbolism of the Hindu Gods and Rituals, Vedanta Life Institute, Bombay, 1983
Frederick M. Smith, “Light on Patanjali”, Yoga ‘93 Souvenir Magazine, IYNAUS, 1993