Hundreds of Ancient Yoga Manuscripts Still Untranslated

Sanskrit text
Detail from the Yoga Sutra Vritti of Bhoja

By the time I finished my advanced yoga teacher training, I felt confident that I knew a lot about yogic philosophy. However, according to India’s National Mission for Manuscripts (NMM), we all still have a lot to learn about yoga. In fact, modern yogis have been exposed to only a fraction of ancient yogic texts and philosophy. That’s because NMM has 300-400 untranslated ancient yoga manuscripts that could forever change our knowledge of yoga and its role in scientific study.

In 2003, India’s Ministry of Tourism and Culture founded NMM in an attempt to translate and publish a wealth of ancient Indian manuscripts—one million to be exact. Of the million texts, hundreds are yoga related. But between the relentless workload and a grim financial situation, NMM’s mission has been slow to launch. In 13 years of operations, NMM has obtained only $160,000 of funding, which barely covers salaries and overhead. To date, they have decoded less than 100 manuscripts. As a result, no one is certain of what secrets lie hidden in the undeciphered yogic texts.

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Luckily, what NMM lacks in money, they make up in passion. The organization states they have circumvented “these shortcomings to continue to work for manuscripts that are a huge source of Indian literary heritage.” Despite the serious financial setbacks, NMM is diligently working to translate manuscripts with knowledge pertaining to yoga, Ayurveda, astrology, and astronomy. Moreover, they hope to translate several Bhagavad Gitas and versions of Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Yoga’s literary history is obscure. Traditionally, teachers entrusted the sacred texts and knowledge by way of oral tradition. When yogis eventually began transcribing the teachings, the surfaces they wrote on, such as palm trees, were easily damaged. As such, modern yogis and scholars presume a significant amount of knowledge has been lost throughout yoga’s 10,000 year history. Of course, a small number of texts survived and remain cornerstones of contemporary yogic study. Among some of the most widely read and cherished are The Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Vasistha, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, The Vedas, and The Upanishads. To add to this list, NMM aims to publish 50 new texts next year, which may provide new insight about yoga.

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So what does this mean for modern studies of yoga and science? NMM is hopeful that their translations will reposition India to the forefront of leading scientific research. Yogis and Ayurvedic practitioners frequently claim modern scientific research is playing catch up to ancient Indian knowledge. These texts could move beyond yogis’ steadfast claims to prove that what modern scientists call “new age” or “holistic” is simply ancient Indian science.

With yoga’s increasing popularity around the globe, NMM plans to expedite the translation of the manuscripts so they can share their findings. The organization has launched two programs to attract more students toward careers in paleography. That way they will have more scholars to begin translating the yogic manuscripts.

Until then, we will have to wait to see what secrets and treasures the manuscripts hold. Luckily, while we wait, there are plenty of yogic texts to study. Not sure where to start?  Check out Yoga Basics’ Philosophy of Yoga.

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