Updated: Aug 22, 2022
Most of Patanjali’s personal history is engulfed with mystery and myth; (much like any of the world’s spiritual superheroes) the tale of Patanjali’s birth has taken on legendary dimensions.
Story: I – Patanjali is one of the manifestations of Trinity
One of the popular stories Patañjali was born to Atri and his wife Anasuya (this would make him go back to the time of the creation by Brahma).
According to this tradition, Anasuya had to go through a stern test of her chastity when the Trimurti (The Creator, The Preserver and the Destroyer) themselves came as Bhikshus (uninvited monks, Athitthi) and asked her for Bhiksha.
She passed their test by accepting them as her children and fed them. She got the boon where all the three manifestations of Supreme Energy will be born to them.
They were Soma Skanda/Patañjali, Dattatreya, and Durvasa.
Story II: Patanjali, the Scholar
Another story tells that once upon a time Nandi, Shiva’s carrier, would not allow Patanjali Muni to have Darshan of Lord Shiva (Nataraja of Chidambaram).
In order to reach Lord Shiva, Patanjali, with his mastery over grammatical forms, spontaneously composed a prayer in praise of the Lord without using any extended (Dirgha) syllable, (without Charana and Shringa) i.e. leg and horn, to tease Nandi.
Shiva was quickly pleased, gave Darshan to the devotee and danced to the lilting tune of this song.
Story III: The Mystery behind the Name “Patanjali”
Vishnu while seated on Adi Shesha, was so captivated by the enchanting dance of Lord Siva that he started to vibrate to its rhythm.
When the dance was over, the weight was lifted. Adi Shesa, mesmerized by this dramatic change, expressed to Visnu that he wanted to learn to dance and Visnu predicted that Lord Shiva would bless him for his understanding and devotion to the dance.
Adisesa began thinking about who his mother would be.
Simultaneously, Gonika, a devoted yogini, was praying for a worthy son to whom she would pass along her knowledge and understanding of yoga.
Adisesa then fell from heaven in the form of a little snake into the upturned palms of Gonika, destined to perpetuate the teachings of yoga on earth.
The mythological component to this story offers insight to the meaning of the name Patanjali. “pata” translates to falling, while “pat” is leaves containing knowledge (knowledge was composed on palm leaves) and “anjali” meaning offering or a hand gesture offering.
Ultimately, Patanjali can be roughly translated as “falling from heaven,” offering sacred knowledge coming from the heart.
Story IV: Patanjali’s Penance
Another incidence is said to have happened in Chidambaram located about a hundred miles from Chennai.
Chidambaram is considered to be one of the holiest temples in India. In this temple, Lord Nataraja is present in his cosmic-dancing form.
Shiva wanted to teach cosmic dance to all the Rishis and Gods at Darukavanam.
Lord Adishesha heard the description of Shiva’s dance at Darukavanam, performed penance and prayed to Shiva to allow him to see the dance.
Being pleased with his penance, Shiva appeared to him and promised that he would dance at Chidambaram.
Accordingly, Adishesha was born as a human being, as Patanjali, and went to the forest of Chidambaram.
At this time a certain sage, Vyaghrapada, also lived in this forest. Vyaghrapada was the son of Madhyandina Rishi (on whom the Madhyandina branch of Shukla Yajurveda is named) who lived on the banks of the Ganga.
He came to the South under the direction of his father and started praying to the Swayambhulinga under a banyan tree near a tank in the same forest.
He used to collect flowers for puja and he prayed for the boon of getting tiger’s feet and claws so that he could easily climb up the trees and pluck plenty of flowers.
He also prayed for the eyes of bees, so that he could collect the flowers before any bee could taste the honey in them.
His prayer for these two blessings was granted, and since he had the feet of a tiger, he was called Vyaghrapada.
Each constructed his own hermitage, Patanjali at Ananteeswaram and Vyaghrapada at Tirupuleeswaram in Chidambaram.
They started worshipping Shiva. Days passed and when the time came for Shiva to give them Darshan, the guardian Goddess of the place,
Kalika Devi, interfered and did not allow Shiva to give His Darshan.
Shortly afterwards, Shiva and Devi agreed that they should participate in a dance contest and that the winner should have undisputed possession of Tillai. So the dance started.
At one moment during the dance, the Lord’s earrings fell down, but the Lord took them up from the floor in such a way that nobody could notice the loss and the recovery.
This dance is called Urdhva Tandavam in which Shiva defeated Kalika Devi.
Now Nataraja performed the Ananda Tandavam, i.e. the Dance of Bliss, in the presence of Shivakamasundari and all the Gods and Rishis, and at the same time fulfilled the wish of the two devotees, Patanjali and Vyaghrapada, by allowing them to witness it and thus satisfying them.
Story V: Patanjali’s snake-human form
He is also believed to have a snake-human form during his teaching.
He with his human form used to perform daily routines and then transformed to half human – half snake shape covered by a curtain so that the students weren’t able to see him while he would explore the mystical techniques of ancient wisdom.
Historical references of Patanjali
Tirumular’s (Tamil Shaivite mystic and writer) seventh-century Tamil text Tirumandhiram describes him as hailing from then Kailasam (Koneshwaram Temple, Trincomalee), and tradition has him visiting the Thillai Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram, where he wrote the Charana Shrungarahita Stotram on Nataraja.
In some Sanskrit grammatical works, Patañjali is called “the man from Gonarda”. He is held by some to have been born at the “Gonarda” situated at Thiru Kona Malai, Sri Lanka.