Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the 13th Century

Book Review: The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the 13th Century by Geoffrey Samuel - Cambridge 2008

This was an excellent book. I usually don’t savor academic books but this one kept my interest quite well and the author conveyed his sense of seeking the truth of these matters well while also elucidating a few of his own theories. The sources for this work are not only textual but also archaeological and iconographic. Indian history is notoriously sketchy with uncertain dates and much infused with legend.

The book describes what he calls the Second Urbanisation of South Asia –the first urbanization being the Indus Valley Culture of the cities of Harrapa and Mahenjo-Daro from 2600-1900 BC just re-discovered this century. This second urbanization refers to the growth of cities in the first millennium BC. Many centuries before this various Indo-Aryan tribes migrated into northern India conquering and subjugating the local populations. These nomadic pastoralists spread out and Sanskrit became the dominant tongue over a large area with a shared culture as well. The region of the Vedic homeland in north central India was more conducive to the herding lifestyle of the Indo-Aryans. Another area to the east along the Ganges River was more forested. A premise of the book is that these were the same people racially ( a mix of Aryan and locals) but had some cultural differences.

Kingship is highly important in Indo-Aryan societies. Most were warrior kings with highly ritualized functions. Those in the Kuru-Pancala region of the Vedic homeland trace their origin to the Moon through the Lunar Dynasty related in their main epic collection – the Mahabharata. Warrior kings are also most prominent in those Aryans that migrated to Europe – having similar rituals such as the horse sacrifice and similar rites even among the ancient warrior-kings of Ireland. The author notes that in the Ganges region – kingship was traced to the Sun through the Solar Dynasty related in the main epic of that area – the Ramayana where King Mithila becomes a new kind of king – a Wisdom King. So instead of the warrior being the ideal – the renunciate sage is idealized. The Ganges region was a center of trade and so became more urbanized with merchant cities and fertile agriculture compared to the pasturelands to the west. Here there was also a nature-fertility cult of spirits – or yakshas and auspicious goddesses like Sri Laksmi.

In the Indo-Aryan Vedic society there were these brotherhoods of pre-adult young men who would go on cattle stealing raids perhaps as their initiations into warrior-hood. It is thought that these small warrior bands (vratyas) may have developed a sort of ascetic culture possibly based around shamanic manhood rituals and practices. These vratyas as well as the jatila – or forest-dwelling brahmins (priests) may have led to the development of the sramanas – the ascetics with full sets of practices. These sramanas were the first teachers of the Buddha who took up their techniques. This was all in the Ganges region. There was also Mahavira – the founder of the Jaina order concurrent with Buddha and also the Ajivikas. These ascetics became associated with taking care of the dead which they may have inherited from the vratyas. The dead are associated with misfortune in these societies so those who have renounced attachment to such matters are considered best equipped to work with the dead. The sramanas also had an ideal of developing some sort of liberating insight which is exemplified in the Buddha’s enlightenment. As a wider shared ascetic society developed among what were to become Buddhists, Jains, and jatila Brahmans and other Vedic ascetics there came to be more techniques shared. This is also the time of the Upanisads and the Brahmanas of the Vedantic period where spiritual questing becomes more emphasized than repeating the Vedic rituals and sacrifices. The ideal of celibacy – particularly among young males – became more emphasized. This had nothing to do with sin as in Christian countries but with loss of power or life force or inner energy to accomplish one’s goals.

The author goes through other developments in this period such as the Indo-Greek Buddhist culture in Gandhara in present-day Afghanistan where the first images of Buddha are found in Greek style often accompanied by the Bodhisattva Vajrapani depicted as Hercules. Also a significant cult of Shiva arose in this crossroads area. It is also conjectured that some early Saivite ascetic forms may have been influenced by the Greek Cynics who trace their origins to Hercules – or Herakles. The Saivite Pashupati trace their origin to one called Lakulisa. Both the Cynics and Pashupatis were known for practicing shocking and socially crazy behavior and this likely influenced the transgressive aspect of tantra. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are dated by most scholars to 100-500 CE and represent a fairly well-developed spiritual practice style. The Buddhist Mahayana sutras – many appearing from Central Asia as well as India come at this time also. A few indicate visualization of deity practices which likely influenced the later tantric practices. Court ritualists in the style of the Atharva Veda did rites for kings. The non-Aryan Dravidian peoples of South India had their own kingship rites with lower castes assisting and their own different ideas of ritual purity. Both these and the Aryan ideas contributed to the development of the caste system. The influence of the Atharva Veda on kingly power rites and magick may have led to the development of the mandala as a ritual form depicting guardians of the directions and such. More urbanized living may have caused more disease making the propitiation of disease-bearing goddesses more common. These wild and dangerous goddesses became associated with Shiva in the yogini cults. The yaksha demoness/goddess Hariti was long honored among the Buddhists who tended to adopt the local cults alongside their practice. The aspect of Shiva called Bharaiva who did penance of exile and outcaste from society for cutting off one of the heads of Brahma (even though needed) may have led to ascetics imitating his penance. Bharaiva was a wrathful form and may have influenced the many Buddhist wrathful forms. Wrathful forms may also have been adopted by the court of kings to discourage invaders both ritually and visually.

Tantric traditions such as those of the kulas (family tribes or clans)developed where rites were celebratory as well as yogic – something like modern day witches. The early Buddhist Vajrayana Tantras such as Guyasamaja were quite shocking in wording but much was thought to be symbolic. By now there were well-developed sexual practices in the Buddhist and Saivite Tantra which borrowed from each other. The Vaisnavas and the Jains had some tantras but none that were transgressive. The Tamil Cittars practiced sexual yoga as well. They may have had trade contacts with Taoists who may have brought sexual yoga practices. The later Nath yogis such as Matsyendranath and Goraknath – counted as both Saivite and Buddhist mahasiddhas – reformed the yogic practices in the latter part of the first millennium and wrote texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradapika which show hatha yoga postures a we know them today. These postures were said to be developed to control ones sexual forces and move prana into the central channel. Similar manuals from India are preserved in Tibet. Before the Muslim invasions there was some reformation/refinement in both the Saivite and Buddhist tantras. The famous Kashmiri sage Abhinavagupta reformed the Saivite tantric tradition and kicked of the Sri Vidya (Wisdom Goddess) tradition which was successfully exported to South India. The Kalachakra Tantra was the last major Indian Buddhist Tantra in the 11th century and represents a reform of the nadis and chakra yoga into great detail, a mandala of 722 deities and a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge and exposition on many topics including astrology, cosmology, comparative philosophy, and the nature of consciousness. It has been speculated that this tantra was offered to non- Buddhists as well in order to try to make a unified front against the ever expanding Muslims. It deals a lot with kingship and the nature of an enlightened society and is said to have been preserved in and brought from the mystical land of Shambalah. Of course, the meditative sexual practices were hard to reconcile in groups such as celibate Buddhist monastics in Tibet that preserved many of these tantras. However, there were many lay practitioners that were not celibate and so could engage in these yogic practices.

Philosophies associated with yoga and tantra were the somewhat dualistic Samkya associated with the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Upanasads, the later non-dualism of Advaita Vedanta propagated by the great sage Shankara, and the various Buddhist Mahayana philosophies such as Cittamatra/Yogacara and Madhyamaka and deeper-level practices like Mahamudra and Dzogchen. The Bonpos of Tibet also received tantric and dzogchen lineages.

After the Muslim invasions some of the Brahmans retained their lands and blended in and became more acceptable as a god-based religion. The great Buddhist monastic universities present for a thousand years were destroyed. Some of the Sufi orders were thought to have absorbed some tantric practices. The wandering Bauls of Bengal practice both Hinduism and Islam. The Vaisnava (Visnu- based) bhakti (devotional) cults of Sri Krishna gained in prominence. Tantra gradually came to be somewhat despised by orthodox Hindus especially in Victorian times under the influence of British rule.

Overall this was a great book for me – much to ponder. I should add that this is an outer history. According to these traditions there would also be an inner history and a secret history. In fact there are quite a few legendary origins of the tantras. In the Buddhist tradition the tantras are associated with the third turning of the dharma wheel – the teachings regarding Buddha Nature. Since we are all inherently enlightened but do not recognize it we act is if we are to develop a concordance with the true but hidden state. I look forward to reading his other big book about Tibet call – Civilized Shamans.

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