The Art of Sutra

Arvind Pare explains the attributes of sutra-style writing.

The word sutra means thread. It’s like a mala of flowers — the mala or thread keeps all the flowers together. Similarly, the sutras have an idea contained in them. We’re all familiar with styles of writing like prose or poetry but writing a sutra is unlike prose or poetry, it has its own set of parameters that it must adhere to in order to qualify as a sutra. It has to be concise, precise, yet elaborate enough to convey the meaning it contains without any internal or external contradiction, and it should be written with logic and realism so that it cannot be refuted. A piece of literature qualifies as a sutra only if it meets all the above criteria. Unlike the vedas or even the Bhagavad Gita where hyperbole is used to make a point, in the sutras, these literary devices cannot be used. The sutra is almost manual-like.

The reason sutras cannot have internal contradiction is because the writer must know the entire text before writing it. Something that is said in the first chapter, for example, will not be contradicted a few chapters later. Nothing is repeated either. If something can be said within one sutra, it will not be repeated in any other sutra. These are the rules for sutra writing. In terms of external contradiction, a sutra always states reality so it cannot contradict the external. It’s an extraordinary skill to write a sutra and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras conform to all the attributes that this style demands.

Arvind Pare teaches yoga philosophy, Bhagavad Gita, yoga sutras and other yoga-related topics in Mysore. He learned Vedanta from Swami Dayananda Saraswati of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam.

February 18, 2020
Illustration Sambaran Das

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