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Review - Aphorisms – Poynton

“Network,” Spring 1994

Aphorisms on spiritual method “THE YOGA SUTRAS OF PATANJALI” in the light of mystical experience

by JHM Whiteman, (Colin Smythe, Gerrards Cross. 1998. pp xx + 339.

h/b. ISBN 0-86140-354-1)

Reviewed by Professor John Poynton, M.Sc. PhD.

Mix together a mathematical physicist, philosopher, Sanskrit scholar, mystic and musician with one of the great classics of Eastern religious practice and thought, and what do you get? In the case of this book, a work that can soberly be placed among the finest ever written in the field of self-knowledge and self-development.


The ‘Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’ have long held an honoured (if somewhat poorly comprehended) place in Indian literature.  With Whiteman’s insight and scholarship, the Sutras may well be entering the most significant phase of their history, in being made accessible to us both in the form of an authoritative translation into idiomatic English, and also in the form of a literal translation interleaved with the Sanskrit, with textual and interpretative commentaries.  This allows the reader both a literary access to the Sutras, and a direct access by coming to grips with the original Sanskrit.


Leading up to these two sets of translations is an extended section headed ‘Preparatory Studies’.  This is an outstanding piece of scholarship, which the Sutras till now have lacked.  The section covers the general background and character of the Sutras, their history, and problems of their interpretation.  In this section, Whiteman stresses that the Sutras, or aphorisms, outline a comprehensive course of spiritual development, one that is based on first-hand experience.  It is this emphasis on first-hand experience that is one of the special features of Whiteman’s treatment of the Sutras.  Whiteman’s output, whether in the area of physics, philosophy or mysticism, is characterized by a consistent adherence to the principles of Husserl’s phenomenology, which calls for a plain description of direct experience, free of prepossessions, speculation and theories.


The appearance of the term ‘mystical’ in the title could be misleading to those who apply to the term the common perception of hazy and fanciful thinking. 


In accordance with his phenomenological position, Whiteman stresses that mysticism, as he understands it, is active and practical, and dependent on the skills of clear-sighted non-attachment and wisdom.  Other-worldly it may in part be, but this is based on direct perception and knowledge of what is not located in the physical world.


Whiteman has already written at length on nearly all the topics covered in the introductory section.  The treatment in his latest book is however more comprehensive and concise than found elsewhere, and takes many of the topics further along the lines of clarification and development.  Readers may find some topics difficult to come to grips with, in that they tend to lie outside the range of common experience.  This could be true especially of Whiteman’s treatment of personality structure, an area of study, it must be admitted, where psychologists currently find little to agree about, and where some new insights should be welcome.  Whiteman describes a corporate structure of personality’, in which perceivable, non-physical minds contribute to our consciousness; minds which come and go in the personality and contribute to the generation of personality-phases throughout life.


While difficult for most people to grasp, Whiteman maintains that without such understanding, much of the Yoga Sutras would be either incomprehensible or subjected to implausible conjecture.  Whiteman’s study throws the light of direct experience and knowledge on the Sutras, and also on many Upanishadic and Buddhist texts, not to mention on much of the contemporary psychological and parapsychological scene.  His combination of rigorous scholarship, wide knowledge, and deep empathy with the text can serve as a model for the rejuvenation of other classic works.  

Review – Aphorisms – Rhea White

Exceptional Human Experience

Vol. 13, No 1 June 1995


Whiteman, J.H.M. Aphorisms on Spiritual Method: The “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” in the Light of Mystical Experience.  Gerrards Cross, England: Colin Smythe: 1993. 340 p. Chap. notes: 318-327; 1 fig; Glossary: 308-317; Name Index: 328-329; Subject Index: 330-339; 1 table.


Professor Whiteman, a physicist, a musician, and before all, a mystic, here gives us a greatly augmented version of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  In this scholarly work, Whiteman tries to provide what existing commentaries lack: the connection of the sutras with mystical evidence: explication of the many references to Buddhist teachings, technical terms, and the influence of Buddhist teachings, technical terms, and the influence of Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit; references in the sutras to teachings of the Vedas and the Upanishads, which have not been considered heretofore.  For the interpretation of difficult aphorisms, commentators have fallen back on the nonmystical Sankhya philosophy (Whiteman likens this to depending on Marx’s writings to interpret St Paul); and where there are alternative interpretations of an aphorism, Whiteman assists those who are not familiar with Sanskrit and its ancient literature to seek the correct interpretation.  He also tried to find ways of “expressing the psychological and mystical truths effectively in English, without departing from the basic etymology and syntax of the original Sanskrit” (p. viii).  Perhaps most importantly, the interpretations and commentaries throughout are informed by Whiteman’s own firsthand mystical experience  and of some of the siddhis described as well.  Specifically, he states his hope that in this version the “idiomatic style and a natural suggestiveness of the language may lead to a wider recognition of the Yoga Sutras as a great classic of systematic and practical mysticism, so that more people will be able to profit from the spiritual guidance it offers” (p. ix).  After a helpful Introduction, there are 12 chapters comprising Part 1:  Preparatory Studies, five provide guidance to the reader as to the Mystical Background, four the historical background, and three are on problems of interpretation.  Summaries are provided for each chapter.  Part II consists of the text in idiomatic English translation.  Part III provides the Sanskrit text with interlinear translation and textual and interpretive commentaries.  Several supplements provide further guidance about the translation.  This work deserves to be the standard text of the famed Yoga Sutras – R.A.W – Rhea White


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