Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Green Man: Spirit of Nature

Book Review: The Green Man: Spirit of Nature by John Matthews (Red Wheel/Weiser 2002)

This is a small but wonderful and well-illustrated book about the archetype of the Green Man from ancient and medieval times. It is well written and evocative. The Green Man, of course, represents the natural world and our relationship to it. Certainly ancient observations of green vegetative growth suggested an animating force and this force became only semi-anthropomorphized as the Green Man motif. The Green man is often depicted as a face bedecked with leaves and appears often carved into the outsides of European churches and buildings.

The Green Man is the animating force of the forests that cover the earth. Of course, sacred trees exist in many cultures as well as the World Tree that is a representation of all the ‘planes’ or realms where beings live. The forest gods predate the agricultural gods and are likely precursors to them as well.

The author discusses the Sumerian Enkidu as an early representation of the Green Man from the Epic of Gigamesh. Leaf-mask carvings are present there in Babylonian times. Another version is the dying-and-rising god Attis from the Near East Mediterranean who was associated with a sacred pine tree. Probably the most famous of the vegetation gods is the Egyptian Osiris, as a seasonal grain god. The dying-and-rising god motif often represents agriculture but can also represent recurring vegetation from the wild. In Egypt the color green was sacred and there was a saying, “do green things” which referred to the good and the wholesome. Conversely, “doing red things” referred to the unwholesome. This is probably in response to the fertility of the earth around the Nile which changes drastically from black earth near the river and its floodplain which fosters the green growth, and the infertile red earth beyond where everything burns up, dries up, and dies. Osiris is associated with the black and the green while his sometimes enemy Set of the desert is Red. The resurrection of the god and the regeneration of vegetation are both part of the mythos.

Pan is a major deity of nature. He is the all, the universal force of nature, and the wild man of the woods who haunts the lonely and secluded places of nature. He is also untamable and uncontrollable. Dionysus is another of the old wild gods of nature. He is associated with agriculture and of course viticulture as well. He is credited with carrying the magic of the vine and its intoxicating essence to new lands - not only the wild essence of the wine, but of the unruly growth of plants and forest that are also hard to tame and control.

Arabic and Islamic legends depict green as the color of rebirth and of paradise itself. The Koran has references to “Al-Khidir” or “the Green One” probably derived from an ancient vegetation cult but later described as a guide to both Moses and Alexander the Great.

Krisna, with blue skin, and forest-dwelling Rama, with dark-green skin, may be Eastern forms of the Green Man as both are lords of trees and nature.

“Some of the oldest concrete images of the Green Man date from the 2nd century CE, in an area once part of the vast Mesopotamian Empire but by then ruled over by the Romans.” These were male masks with leaves often at the base of fountains and temple columns. This form on architecture would remain to grace buildings of Europe as a remnant of living in the green for those living in the stone edifices. He is pagan remnant on Christian churches. Even in those times people were dependent on the harvest as food preservation and freezing had not yet come about. So influencing the harvest magically was still practiced and honoring the Green Man was one way of doing it.

In terms of the year, the Green Man appears with the greening and the month of May. He is venerated at Midsummer too. He was King of the Winter Wood as well. As King of the Wood the rites of Rex Nemorensis reach back in time to rites where the Year King ruled for a year and then was sacrificed. Human sacrificial traditions of this sort are well documented. In some cases the slayer takes over as king for the next year and is slain as the cycle went on. In other versions a king is slain during a bad harvest year. Another aspect of the Year King is the battle of the Summer King and the Winter King for the Spring Maiden.

The author notes several mythic cycles that refer to the battle for the year. Although he doesn’t mention it the battle of the Oak King and Holly King is one such myth often portrayed in Wiccan and pagan circles. The mythic features of the story of Robin Hood and his Merry Men suggest him as a 12th century representation of the Green Man and King of the Wood. He died like a Year King and his lover Marion was much as the Queen of the May. A related Green Man motif is that of Robin Goodfellow, the trickster also known as the fairy Puck from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The author mentions the remnants of this trickster spirit of the woods in the Bucca of Britain and the Bosgou of North-west Spain.

The Arthurian tale of the Green Knight is another Green Man myth. The 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the best known version. The Green Man in knight form challenges anyone to exchange blows with him – first the challenger may give him a blow but must accept a blow in return. Gawain faces the giant Knight and uses the knight’s own axe to cut off his head. The Green Knight then holds his own head aloft as it speaks – saying that Gawain should return to the Green Chapel in a year’s time to receive his return blow. Gawain travels to look for the Green Chapel and is given shelter by Sir Bercilak and Lady Bercilak. Gawain is repeatedly tested by Lady Bercilak and passes except that he accepted a small talisman of protection from her. It turns out that Sir Bercilak is none other than the Green Knight who was put under a spell by the “Goddess Morgane.” Sir Bercilak is satisfied with nicking Gawain’s neck and the matter is settled. Lady Bercilak can be seen as the Spring Maiden.

Another Green Man manifestation is the sometimes comical Jack-in-the-Green. He is typically a man bedecked with leaves and branches, appearing sometimes as a moving bush or tree. I have donned this form myself a time or two. A similar manifestation is that of the Wildman in the Green, often depicted with a club or uprooted tree and like the Sumerian hero Enkidu, representative of untamed nature. Matthews goes on to describe some aspects of springtime Morris Dancing possibly related to the Green Jack traditions.

There is a section discussing – The Return of the Green Man – which mentions popular media of Green Man-like themes and the interest in “back to nature” and “green living” as newfangled aspects of the Green Man mythos. Rediscovering a more symbiotic and healthy relationship with the green world is important as our industrial society has degraded the environment.

The author gives suggestions of how to celebrate the Green Man as garden spirit, office mascot, a presence of nature at rather unnatural places like hospitals, in ceremonies of beginnings and rededication, as guardian of animals, and in gift giving. I like his idea of placing an image of the Green Man in a pet cemetery as a guardian. Also given is a nice Walking Meditation preferably among trees where one takes in the power of nature through mindful awareness and explores without expectations.

The last section is about places where there are images of the Green Man, especially in Europe but also in other places around the world. One such manifestation is known as Kirtimukha in India and Borneo where he is a spirit of good luck and fertility and adorns many Jain temples in India. Some other mentions are in the Middle East and Tunisia where faces in leaves are found in very old art and in some of the Aztec depictions in Mexico. He lists many exact places throughout Europe as well as festivals where one might find Green Man themes.

Really cool book with great pictures. Small, but a nice one for the whole family to peruse. This is the 2nd book I have read and reviewed by John Matthews (and Kaitlyn Matthews). Their work on Celtic mythic themes is very good.






Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Naturalistic Occultism: An Introduction to Scientific Illuminism

Book Review: Naturalistic Occultism: An Introduction to Scientific Illuminism
by IAO 131 (LuLu 2nd edition 2012 -1st edition 2009)

I think that this is an excellent and important book that addresses some relevant issues and clears a path to a way of thinking about phenomena that hovers on and beyond the limits of scientific analysis.

The term ‘Scientific Illuminism’ was coined by Aleister Crowley in describing his Equinox publications where he extolled it as “The Method of Science, The Aim of Religion.” This book is an important continuation along this path. The term ‘Naturalistic Occultism’ is basically synonymous with Scientific Illuminism and suggests that unexplainable things can be better approached through a format of naturalism as opposed to supernaturalism. Here science is the standard for measuring the subjective experiences of magick, occultism, mysticism, and spirituality. It is basically an approach, one possible one among many, yet it is a very good one, probably the best. This general approach can be applied to any reasonable belief system or even an atheistic angle. It is an approach that keeps superstition and dogma at a minimum. Frater IAO 131 states that the book developed from his studies of social psychology and cognitive neuroscience.

One feature of the book stems from Crowley’s desire to expose and discredit the charlatans which seem to populate occultism and to re-orient occultism toward science. Crowley’s contemporary, the occultist Dion Fortune, noted similar dismay at the proliferation of pseudo-science in occult circles and the author refers several times to her book “Sane Occultism”. The trend seems to have continued on in  the wildly speculative forms of “New Age” Spirituality and psychic hucksters. The author has founded the Society of Scientific Illuminism to further such ends as promoting a more scientific understanding of occultism.  

The author assumes the connection between perception, even consciousness, and the human nervous system. Though one may argue philosophically that consciousness (or perhaps awareness beyond consciousness) can be independent of neurology, for all practical purposes, it is a functional assumption. Changes in the nervous system cause changes in perception – this statement defines Francis Crick’s “Astonishing Hypothesis.” On that basis the author states that:

“Magick might therefore be defined as, “the volitional control of the human nervous system through manipulation of itself, the rest of the body, and its immediate environment.”

He also suggests that the utilization of magical correspondences can be seen as “the intentional conditioning of associations between various sensory stimuli with abstract or moral ideas.” He notes also that initiation might be “understood as the de-conditioning (ie. overcoming mental and behavioral habits) and then re-conditioning of the human nervous system in accordance with the volition of the organism.”

The author offers two types who may be averse to a scientific view of occultism: those who despise and overly distrust science (the charlatan) and those who deliberately misuse science (the pseudo-scientist). Aversion to and distrust of science can be a significant problem these days. While the views of scientists are not always correct and are often not at all absolute, science should be the standard by which things are measured, even those things that are subjective and unseen.

Frater IAO 131 contrasts Scientific Illuminism with three general groups of occultist-types: New Age, Hermeticism, and Chaos Magick. These he critiques and gives their pitfalls as well as their admirable qualities. He notes that New Agers and pagans can be apathetic to mainstream science yet open to pseudo-science and given to consumerism. Hermeticists can fall prey to traditionalism and elitism and sometimes accept philosophical ideas uncritically. Chaos mages can lack a systematic approach and focus overly on material rather than spiritual goals. New Agers and Chaos magicians tend to be healthily open-minded. Hermeticists can be systematic and thorough. Chaos mages tend to be pragmatic, emphasizing what works. Scientific Illuminists, he notes, utilize science as much as possible and avoid antipathy to “mainstream science” while also staying open-minded. Blind faith in tradition is discouraged but experts in their fields are strongly considered. He suggests a general avoidance of commodifying occultism and of any notions of elitism or superiority. I think he correctly sees the judging of others as a waste of energy and notes that we should work in a spirit of collaboration and note the contributions of those outside one’s own traditions.

In a scientific illuminist framework the occult practitioner is likened to a scientist and the occult community to a scientific community utilizing shared data and ideas.

Crowley’s definition of magick as “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will” suggests that this can be a rather subjective pursuit since many of those changes will be interpreted subjectively. The author likes Dion Fortune’s slight revision of Crowley’s definition, “the Science and Art of causing changes in consciousness to occur in conformity with Will.” This definition focuses more on the subjective aspects of magick, though objective observable results are also quite possible. But even objective occurrences very often are required to be interpreted subjectively. The point he emphasizes is to keep the objective and the subjective separate in evaluations of the results of magickal acts. The means to do this are to utilize the language of phenomenology.

A chapter on Phenomenology gives a good introduction to the subject. The first concept given is that of the “phenomenal field.” Each person is the center of their phenomenal field. This is simply one’s filed of experience through the senses, including thought. Experience is seen as an interaction between us and the external world. In that sense, the external world itself can even be seen as a facet of consciousness. The author suggests that we adopt a phenomenological language of consciousness. Perception appears to be divided into inner and outer and perhaps it is confusion of the two that leads many people to assert external entities as the causes of many phenomena rather than internal perceptual processes involving the human psyche. As the author states it: “a feeling not often experienced is often attributed to some “other” spirit, entity, or force …” This is interesting to me as I have read that descriptions of the “attainment” in Thelema called the “knowledge and conversation of the holy guardian angel” – are often described initially as the sensing of a powerful “other” – this other, or new manifestation of consciousness, ends up being the “higher self” in magico-qabalistic terms. The author does point out that this separation of self and other, or ego and non-ego, or subject and object, can be unified, or un-differentiated, and this unification is often a key factor in describing mystical states. Several examples are given of how phenomenological language may be used to describe subjective experiences. What are described are things like feelings, mental sensing, metaphorical thoughts, and other first person descriptions and accounts of an experience. Metaphysical assumptions are generally to be avoided and the use of this “atheoretical” phenomenological language can even train people to avoid those assumptions . The idea is to focus on the subjective experiences objectively without being so objective as to discount the importance of subjectivity itself. The combining of direct physical evidence with subjective description has been termed “heterophenomenology” by psychologist Daniel Dennet. Utilizing a phenomenological language based in science fosters communication between people of different dogmatic backgrounds. There can be many ways to describe an experience if one uses the dogmas of various magico-religious systems. But if the dogma is sifted away, those experiences can be communicated more universally. Also, it may be useful to find agreed upon equivalences in various systems – and this is of course a part of the idea of magical correspondences. Also one may use the terminology of one’s own system as “shorthand” for descriptive purposes then translating it into the more universal phenomenological language.

Pragmatism deems that what is true is what is useful. Crowley explained this in his statement: “By doing certain things certain results will follow.” Pragmatism is an approach to occult phenomena that favors subjective functionality over asserting the phenomena as objective truth. In other words, what works is more important than constructing a metaphysical model.

The summary of the approach involves formulating the methods and practice along pragmatic lines, doing the practice, recording results with phenomenological language, and utilizing a naturalistic interpretation and explanation of practice and results.

Next he goes into Theory – which is explained naturalistically as in step 4 (above) of the approach. In accordance with the Hermetic axiom “As above, so below” or as the author seems to prefer it “As within, so without” the external world can be seen in terms of a projection of our own psyches. Our tendencies to anthropomorphize forces and see pictures and faces in nature (similar to ‘free association’ in psychology) makes this model of macrocosm a projection of microcosm a potentially useful one.

The symbols of occultism such as planets, elements, zodiac, Sephira, tarot trumps, Hebrew letters, numbers, and other correspondences can be considered to be aspects of the psyche and magick can be considered consciously manipulating these aspects through conditioning. The associating of these symbols with phenomena can form a systematic way of understanding things, albeit with a certain amount of arbitrariness. In this vein the author goes through phenomenological explanations of divination where subjectivity is just as important as the meanings of the symbols that come up. The author notes that,

“The innate pattern-finding drive in human organisms can be bent to the will of the magician.”

He further suggests that divination can best suggest courses of action to alleviate indecision. He notes importantly that a form of cognitive bias known as “confirmation bias” is often at play in divination. This is “a tendency to interpret new information as justifying and affirming preconceived beliefs.” This along with our pattern-finding tendencies may account for much of the seemingly “spot-on” predictions of psychics and readers. So, in terms of Naturalistic Occultism, divination is considered to be objectively arbitrary but potentially subjectively meaningful. Perhaps another way to think of it is that the meanings of symbols are not fixed but change in accordance with how they are used by those who engage them. Similarly, finding patterns in numbers through methods like Gematria can be just as self-fulfilling – even to the point of obsession as one tries to fit the numbers in different schemes to make them match something of interest. Many or should I say most or all gematrians have been guilty of this at one time or another.

In a chapter about why magick seems to work, the author suggests the placebo effect. The placebo effect is a powerful and very real psycho-somatic component of experience. It involves the power of expectation. Expectations alter behavior which may influence how one subjectively experiences something. Magick might be seen as “self-administered placebos.”

In a discussion of “synchronicity”, those uncanny connections and coincidences, the author suggests the cognitive bias called “selective perception” as a cause at least in some cases. This just means we tend to notice things that fit our needs or fulfill our expectations. Jung defined synchronicity as “temporarily coincident occurrences of acausal events.” This definition utilizes the word “acausal” which states that Jung did not see these events as being in any way caused by the other. Even so, these coincidences may be meaningful as they may be a sort of communication from our own psyche, or our unconscious. These are perhaps not messages from the gods or spirits as shamans and psychics conclude, but messages from our hidden selves – but then again if one sees gods and spirits and their myths and stories as manifestations of the unconscious rather than as some external realities then this can be rather equivalent. In magick one may even generate these synchronicities through practice. I have noticed that Western Esotericism in particular is very symbol-oriented and so these happenings do occur. Back when I was a more regularly practicing magician I experienced quite a few synchronicities of this sort. In some forms of shamanism the occurrence of synchronicities is said to be confirmation that the work is functioning on the inner planes.

There is a chapter that compares initiation to psychotherapy. The author suggests that the aims of both may be similar. He defines initiation as attaining a spiritual experience and the continuous de-conditioning in order to improve and manifest that attainment. I am not sure I agree totally here – though perhaps this is more in line with Western systems. In Tantra, initiation is an introduction to a series of practices and accomplishment would be the attainment of the results of that practice. In any case, the definitions have similarities.

He compares initiation to the psychotherapeutic goal of “making the unconscious conscious.”

The author goes on to give a concise introduction to psychotherapy from Freud to Jung’s idea of archetypes and individuation, the latter of which he compares to humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow’s motivation theories of self-realization or self-actualization. It is interesting to me that the concepts and terminology of psychology and psychotherapy are widely applicable in explaining what we normally call spiritual practices and mystical experiences. It is a universal discipline applicable to religion, mythology, philosophy, shamanism, etc. He also touches on newer forms of psychotherapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Gestalt therapy, client-centered therapy, existential-humanistic therapy, humanistic and transpersonal psychology. Crowley even praised the work of Freud and Jung as bringing the methods of the magician into mainstream science. Occultist and psychotherapist Dr. Israel Regardie suggested that magicians would benefit from psychotherapy and highly recommended it. As a good summary statement the author offers:

“Though the methods and underlying theories of psycho-spiritual change may differ, both initiation and psychotherapy have the aim of making the unconscious conscious, actualizing the potential of the individual, of de-conditioning various mental and behavioral habits, and realigning the self to be more in harmony with the entire psyche or organism.”

Frater IAO 131 then shifts to recent cutting-edge neurology that may explain the nature of the astral body of the occultist. This involves a representation of the body created by the brain which is known as the “body image.” Recent research suggests the parietal cortex, the part of the brain that deals with spatial perception, as generating the body image. The author suggests that this body image is none other than the astral body of lore and tradition. I would agree although there may be other astral bodies – as indicated by OBE researcher Robert Monroe and also part of occult and traditional teachings – that are independent of the body image. The neurological explanation of astral phenomena is investigated in some detail and is quite fascinating. He gives four hypotheses on the make up of the astral:

1)      “the astral body is actually the brain’s self-representation of the body”

2)      “the astral plane with all of its “astral phenomena” is actually the self-generated “extrapersonal space” experienced in OBE’s and dreams”

3)      What we perceive as matter is the brain’s interpretation of sensory stimuli from the external environment and what we perceive as astral phenomena is “internally generated stimuli interpreted by the brain.”

4)      “it may be possible for enough volitional attention to be directed towards imagining certain visual stimuli to potentially induce an OBE”

He notes that most methods of astral projection involve physical relaxation and “mental concentration on an imagined extrapersonal visuo-spatial perspective” (a point-of-view outside oneself). This essay on the neurological aspects of the astral body and related phenomena is really quite convincing and he cites several recent neuroscience journal articles. Changes in visual attention may induce astral projection. OBEs occur similarly across many different cultures. One’s sense of balance may be involved. Non-egocentric perspective taking may be an induction method. Astral phenomena are often called visions and the interpretation of visions is quite subjective. The author compares astral workings and scrying to the “projective tests” of psychology such as Rorschach’s ink blot test where we project meaning onto ambiguous stimuli. I think one may include things like hypnagogic imagery and lucid dreaming as astral phenomena as well and as we know these can be associated with various feelings and sensations unique to ourselves.

Frater IAO 131 defines invocation as “the willed activation of latent parts of the psyche.” The gods, goddesses, angels, or demons invoked are understood (in Naturalistic Occultism) to be “symbolized aspects of one’s psyche.” This is identical to practices in Tibetan Buddhism where deities and demons are seen the same way. Even some of our every day acts can be seen as forms of invocation – ie. setting a mood, meditating on a quality, or taking on a persona of some sort. Setting up our correspondences to point to the quality we are trying to bring in is akin to turning knobs to tune in to a certain frequency

There is discussion of “Mystic Attainment” which can be explained in many ways by philosophers and religionists yet there are certain parallels in the various descriptions that can be picked out. One is the uniting of subject and object. This is often how the “non-dualism” of Advaita Vedanta or the Mahamudra of Tantric Buddhism is described. The question is whether this Samadhi, union with God, state of integration, or whatever it is called, is a psychological phenomenon. The evidence strongly suggests that it is. He goes on to describe the four characteristics of mystical experience delineated by William James in his “Varieties of Religious Experience”: 1) Ineffability – difficult to describe, 2) noetic quality – powerful experience with deep conviction, ie. gnosis, illumination, revelation, 3) transiency – a generally short-lived state or a state that ends, 4) passivity – one feels more as a vehicle for the mystical energy. James also said that there is the:

“overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute” and “in mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness.”

The author suggests that the word “None” utilized in Crowley’s Book of the Law (Liber Al vel Legis) and other writings points to the ineffability aspect of mystical experience better than the words “one” or “unity”.

In the final section on practice, the author again emphasizes that this is one approach to occultism and spiritual practice and should not be seen as denigrating to other approaches which may be in accordance with the will of those who practice them. It is a good general rule of acceptance and open-mindedness to other approaches. Of course, this approach will be seen as functional, sensible, and of great benefit by those keen enough to utilize it. He also describes the approach as accessible and accommodating, even to those of us who tend toward atheism.

The practical exercises given are astral projection or scrying, lucid dreaming, and a form of meditation which he refers to as “un-differentiated consciousness through focused attention.” For the last exercise he classifies progress as: 1) “awareness of only oneself and the object of attention” 2) awareness of only the object of attention, and 3) awareness of neither subject nor object.” He compares these as to the dharana, dhyana, and samadhi of raja yoga.

The author thinks this approach is still in the early stages and with further work and collaboration with magickal records and sharing of experiences and such, that success is more likely than in other approaches. He thinks that the efficacy and rational approach of this style of occultism puts those who practice it at an advantage over those who don’t – an advantage perhaps in being more integrated psychologically, more liable to discover and understand new things, and way more immune to the problems of dogma and superstition. 

The book is written with concise summaries after most chapters and concludes with a very good glossary of terms which can also be a good review.

To recap, this is a most excellent book and one that any Thelemite should especially appreciate as it is a timely revision of Crowley’s brain child of a synthesis of Magick and Science.




Lucifer's Handbook: A Simplified Critique of Popular Religion

Book Review: Lucifer’s Handbook: A Simplified Critique of Popular Religion by Lee Carter  (Academic Associates 1977)

Here is a review I wrote in the late 80’s when I was perhaps more stifled and annoyed by “popular religion,” especially the sea of Christianity we all seemed to have to swim in. The review has little detail and wanders on to topics independent of the book but that is the way it is. It was originally published by me in a magickal zine I did around 1990:

This was a most delightful treat for those intuitively skeptical toward theism, specifically the ubiquitous Christianity. Mr. Carter has done tediously excellent job of “bringing to light” the numerous contradictions in the xtian bible. He also demonstrates how each sect doctinizes a set of bible teachings while ignoring those that contradict.

Throughout the text there is logical convincing argument rejecting traditional philosophical “proofs” of the existence of God. He confronts the teleological argument; that God exists since the order and patterns of nature must have had a designer, by pointing out that nature is not as orderly as we would like to think and that we do not need God in order to explain nature. He deals with the cosmological argument; that God is the first cause (primum mobile) of all events, by suggesting that one need not assume an ultimate beginning of the universe.

This book contains some of the clearest summaries I have come across of such scientific ideas as the nature of matter, basic time-relativity, and the biology of genetics and evolution. Indeed, Mr. Carter embraces scientific humanism as a highly relevant philosophy, although he does examine the limits of science as well.

For me, scientific humanism would be somewhere betwixt gnosticism/agnosticism and atheism. Gnosticism (used in context meaning the general philosophical idea rather than the religions of the name), where one asserts only what one knows to be true and agnosticism, where one does not assert what is unknowable – should be generally understood to be at odds with theism, where one asserts the existence of something without conclusive proofs, and atheism, where one asserts that something does not or cannot exist, without conclusively proving so, although the scales of logic seem to give more credence to atheism than to theism. These ideas are pointed out emphatically by Z. Cox in Arrow 20 (British occult magazine and editor from the 1980’s).

Atheism can also be used in the context of rejecting a specific theism, such as Christianity, or of all theisms containing inexaminable dogmas. Therefore I would put to re-examination the statement (by Z. Cox in Arrow 20) that atheism and occultism are mutually exclusive. If this means that occultism is necessarily theistic then I would tend to disagree and regard this as a dangerously narrow assumption. For me, modern occultism is best evaluated on a gnostic/agnostic basis. If one likens occultism to science (both are wrought with subtleties and full of mysteries unresolved) then atheism and occultism are not necessarily incompatible. It is my hope that modern occultism will move further away from theistic tradition. Is it not so that Current 93 involves the destruction and reconfiguration of tradition?

One of the primary values of such a treatise as “Lucifer’s Handbook” is in toning one’s blasphemy complex. It entices one to rebel by casting the lantern of reason upon dogma. After all, Lucifer is the bringer of light, of clear vision. Every philosophy and religion is likely to contain points of arguable contradiction, therefore blasphemy can be valid and healthy, even towards one’s own beliefs. Our friend Bob acknowledges this most honestly by the sacred invitation “or kill me!”All in al this book is invaluable in the arsenal against “thou shalt have faith.”

                                                                     Dogma I = I am God

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Sinister Yogis

Book Review: Sinister Yogis by David Gordon White (University of Chicago Press 2009)

This is a most interesting book by an academic quite well versed in the vast corpus of the Sanskrit textual traditions. It is a study of comparative Sanskrit and Indian literature like no other regarding the developing idea of yoga and yogis in India and beyond. The main thing I don’t like about it is the title as I think it is misleading. ‘Sinister Yogis’ refers to certain (mostly medieval and later) narratives about yogis who steal the bodies of others and sometimes have selfish agendas. But that is only one aspect of the book. It is more about the development and evolution of yoga and the yoga practitioner from Vedic to modern times. I think it is an important book and one that offers much to the study of the history of yoga. White does catalogue quite thoroughly the yogic paradigms of superposition of bodies and the emanation of multiple bodies and shows how this idea evolved through different time periods.

White’s research serves to distinguish between the meditative traditions (such as the Samkhya of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras) and what he calls the methodologies of yogis, yoga, and ‘yoking’ which possibly began with the notion of dying Vedic warriors seeking to ‘pierce the disk of the sun’ and join the light realm of the gods. He notes that the Indian word ‘yogi’ encompasses several types and in the book he seeks to discover the interconnectedness of these types:

“The wandering hermit who took over other people’s bodies, the vedic chariot warrior who pierced the disk of the sun following his battlefield death, the philosopher who attempted to establish the foundations of true perception and cognition, the contemplative  who attempted to see himself in god and god in himself, and the eighteenth-century mercenary who sought to make his fortune from the spoils of war: all of these figures from India’s past were in some way engaged in yogic or yogi practice.”

The book begins with tales of sinister yogis. These are from a type of text long popular in India that reaches back to medieval times. In many of these texts the yogis are able to enter and take over the bodies of others as well as corpses and often do so for selfish reasons but not always. Although he only makes a passing glance reference to the Tibetan versions of this story – particularly those of Marpa and his son (there are others as well) – the story in Tibetan is that this type of yoga – the transference of consciousness into corpses or other bodies – the lineage was allowed to die out as it was prone to abuses – at least that is the official story. In many of the Indian stories the yogi trades bodies with a king and there are several different versions and outcomes. White refers to these narratives as the ‘Vikrama Cycle’ of literature. The word ‘vikrama’ means ‘widely advancing’ and often refers to the three steps of Visnu, advancing across the sky as the sun, the three steps referring to positions on a sun dial. These narratives apparently changed with the times and in Moghul times took on the attributes of Mughal era yogis who increasingly became spies and mercenaries. There is another recurring motif in these stories where a yogi’s powers can miraculously cause a barren woman to bear children. Another recurring theme is that of the ‘laughing skeleton’ or skull. Here animated corpses can be like spirits trapped or otherwise manipulated by yogis. The sage Shankara, the Saiva devotees called pasupatas and kapalikas, and the Nath sect of yogis have many of these stories as well and the stories are often associated with the god Bhairava, the fearsome wrathful god of cremation grounds. These stories all support the powerful yogi as ‘mahasiddha’ – one who has mastered the eight siddhas, or powers. How these rather odd motifs came about and the mechanisms for their doing are a key subject of this book.

Authors have noted the Vedic notion of ‘piercing the solar disk’ – a mystical way of dying after being mortally wounded on the battlefield. The sun is considered home of the devas and their realm and to get in one must open a gate (pierce the disk). Piercing the solar disk is also a goal of wandering yogis and each can be seen as entering the realm of the gods through austere means – noble fighting and/or asceticism. It should be noted as well that some Upanishadic sages as well as Buddha have condemned pure asceticism as overly extreme, Buddha having discovered and promoted the ‘middle way’ between the extremes of asceticism and indulgence.

White goes through the appearance of the word ‘yoga’ which comes from yuj (to yoke) and many of its roots in many of the early Sanskrit texts and compares the usage of the terms. He points out different uses of the term in the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. He notes that the term came to mean “method” or “way” when the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras came about 4 or 5 centuries after its use in the Mahabharata, the Vedas, and early Upanishads. The yoga of the Yoga Sutras, of Jainism, and Buddhism came to be described more as meditation, the goal being samadhis (states of meditative absorption) rather than siddhis (powers). White seems to think that the meditative and yogic traditions were for the most part kept separate. I think that this may be true especially of early manifestations but I think they were fairly merged in Tantric Buddhist circles where tantric methods were subdued under the umbrella of the Mahayana. I think he does not pay enough attention – really throughout the book – to the Tantric Buddhist manifestations of yoga – but perhaps this is a bit outside his scope for the book. Buddha did kind of acknowledge that meditation and yoga are different paths to the same goal. White points out the distinctions in the goals of practitioners: he notes that Buddhist, Jain, and Patanjalian meditators have the goal of cessation (nirodha, nirvana) and elimination of suffering. Yogis, on the other hand, may have the ‘numinous’ goal of siddhis, or supernatural enjoyments, or ‘omnipresencings’ (vibhutis). Other yogic goals are ‘visionary ascent’ and enhanced perceptive powers. It is this numinous mode rather than the cessation mode that White focuses on in the book. White also notes the strong influence of the 19th and 20th century reformer Swami Vivekananda on modern perceptions of yoga. It seems Swami Vivekananda followed many of the ideas of Madam Blavatsky! Vivekananda’s commentary on the Yoga Sutras, his depiction of raja yoga, the yoga of kings (which apparently meant something entirely different in medieval manuscripts, ie. a yoga of manipulating sexual fluids), and the hatha yoga of the early Nath Yogis such as Goraknath have morphed into the yoga tradition of today. White also notes later in the book that the hatha yoga of today derives nearly entirely from the 1930’s formulation of Krsnamacarya and his students Desi Kachar (his son), BKS Iyengar (his son-in-law), and Patabi Jois. Krsnamacarya even noted that true yoga had left India and was only to be found in remote pockets such as Tibet. Even so, his hatha yoga practices may have led to his living past 100. Patabi Jois died recently at about 96 and the others I believe are still around.

White gives an overview of the most ancient iconic representations of lotus-postures beginning with the famous Pasupati seal from Mahenjo-Daro. Later there are depictions of the (Buddhist/Hindu) lotus goddess Sri, later to become Laksmi, in lotus posture. From the end of the 2nd century BC the Indo-Greek Buddhist Kings of Bactria were often depicted on coins in cross-legged posture. Non-eastern cross-legged icons include one of Artemis of Ephesus (Asia Minor) and the famed Celtic horned god on the Gundestrup Cauldron. The first representations of the Buddha come from 1st-2nd century CE Kushan Empire Gandharan (Indo-Greek) art. The Mahenjo-Daro figure is nearly 2000 yrs older than the others so it is questionable whether it is a yogic posture at all. Descriptions of Jain and Buddhist meditators in seated postures reach back to the earliest scriptures in the 3rd century BC and presumably refer to a period a few hundred years before when Buddha and Mahavira lived. White contrasts the Buddhist and Jain descriptions of jhana (Pali) and dhyana (Sanskrit) with those of yoga mudra and pranayama depicted in the early Upanishads such as the Maitri Upanishad. White compares descriptions from the Maitri Upanishad to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali noting most of his eight limbs are noted with the exception of asana, or posture – which he further uses to try and separate the meditative/contemplative technique traditions from those of yoga. His point is that the lotus posture need not at all indicate yoga. Interestingly he notes that the early representations of the cross-legged posture are often Persian or Indo-Iranian kings of the Kushan/Sassanian empire who later morphed into the Bodhisattva in seated posture. Both kings and Bodhisattvas are depicted on coins from the same period. He also suggests that the description as “lotus posture” originally did not refer to the posture but to the ‘lotus seat’ or throne – as for the royal goddess Sri and the Kushan kings. This royal seat has a long tradition in Buddhism and Hinduism.  

The word yuj, or yoke had 2 meanings in the Vedic period – the yoking of a chariot or plow to a draft animal and the linking of the mind or consciousness to a transcendent object. Whoever does the yoking now has a means to ‘go’. Thus through this etymology we have the common definition of yoga as ‘union with the divine’ – ie. transcendent object. In terms of the Vedic warrior (yogayukta) piercing the sun disk, or traveling to the afterlife in a magical chariot to or through the sun, the Brahmin priest, as yajamana performs the daily sacrifice by ascending in his “initiation body” through the sun to be among the gods and returns, descending back to earth. At death it is the cremation of the body that carries the priest to heaven, as Agni carries the sacrifice as fire. Vedic priests were also said to yoke their minds to poetic inspiration thereby connecting different realms of being. Perhaps this is similar to the psychotherapists “making the unconscious conscious.’ From early Upanishads like the Katha Upanishad the charioteer and his rig-up is metaphorically depicted – the horses are the senses and the reins is the mind, these being utilized to bring the charioteer to the heavenly bliss. This general analogy recurs in many eastern spiritual traditions. There are several different versions of it with varying amounts of detail. The reins are also associated with the rays of the sun as in the solar chariot that carries the sun along its daily path. The dying warrior might utilize the sun’s rays as reins to yoke himself to the solar disk in order to pierce through. Such motifs are depicted in India on the so-called “hero stones” at many temples as well as in mythic accounts of warriors.

The Mahabharata and the later Bhagavad Gita increasingly use the word yoga. It most often depicts, according to White, the piercing of the Sun by the hero and penetrating the body of another being. Yoga as taking over the body of another is a key feature of this book and probably the thing which most separates it from the meditative traditions. The warriors’ embodied ascent through the sun is described in scenes of the Mahabharata. Even Krsna dies in such a manner, appearing as a deer to a hunter but purposefully “hitched to his rig” in order to ascend back to the god realm, his earth work being done. The term yogayukta as chariot-warrior eventually morphed into a wandering hermit who did yogic practices. So the ascension motif of the chariot-warrior becomes the ascension motif of the hermit yogi. White discusses the term yoga-ksema referring to the modes of yogi and householder. Others have noted that yoga may have originally developed from societies of young males traditionally outcaste as a vedic rite of passage that might include cattle raiding. These were the so-called vratya brotherhoods. Here we see another original link between yogi and warrior, or raider, which perhaps links traditionally to the Mughal era yogi mercenaries. Another interesting discussion in this section is that of the earliest references to the meditation belt worn by yogis. This can also be seen as a way of yoking, harnessing, or hitching up. The legendary leader of the Pasupata Order was Lakulisa, who was depicted in the 4th century CE with a meditation belt. Such belts were common among the Nath yogis as well as the Indian and Tibetan Buddhist Mahasiddhas. The belts of the 4th century CE would be the first incontrovertible evidence of physical yogic exercises though surely they were much older. Chinese texts of breathing exercises and postures occur as early as the 4th century BC but there are also some indications in the Upanisads of this era of such practices. White does think that projecting later practices on earlier peoples is common to those who write about the history of yoga and warns against it. I think that though some of that is reasonable supposition, as in many cases they are rather logical assumptions. One of his main points here is that there is no real evidence that the seated figure in the Pasupati Seal has any connection with yoga.

The early Upanishads give the idea of brahman (the power of expansion) and purusa (the transcendent person) or mahan-atma (the self-magnifying self) as the ground of all being and the goal of liberation from all rebirths. The purusa is sometimes seen as the cosmic being that makes up the universe but also as a thumb-sized being in the heart-center of humans. This inner purusa can be seen as the spark of the divine. So the true self as atman/brahman/purusa is both immanent and transcendent, since it is the ground of all being. Another set of ideas that developed in both the Upanishads and Buddhism is jivanmukti (personal liberation) and videhamukti (disembodied liberation – presumably after death). Liberation at death is echoed in the Tibetan Buddhist notion of passing through the bardo of death, or the ‘intermediate state’. Ascending to an afterlife state through a subtle body of light of some sort (sometimes piercing through the sun) is a common motif. I think this has similarities to a sort of ‘astral projection’ or out-of-body experience in some way as does the taking over of corpses or other bodies. White distinguishes the two goals as separate – the first – embodied ascent, leading to supernatural enjoyments in the god realms and the second – disembodies ascent, leading to union or identity with the godhead. In the Maitriyani Upanishad the yogin is called a sanyassin, or ‘renouncer’. This text apparently contains some of the earliest detailed accounts of yogis including pranayama (as stopping of the breath). The sun at the zenith-center of the sky is equated to the center of the person much like a microcosm-macrocosm relationship. This is of course similar to the inner and outer purusas as infinitesimal and infinity. In several of these yogic traditions, at death, the most-subtle- mind-beingness compresses to a point in the heart. The universe as Brahma’s egg is also in the heart where it is sometimes called a cave or net of Brahma. White sees a soteriological change from ‘going’, as in the embodied ascent and the chariot-warrior’s journey to that of ‘knowing’, as in the idea of meditation, or dhyana – or meditation on the purusa (in Bhagavad Gita where Krsna states that he who meditates on him with the mantra OM goes to the highest place.) Some early Mahayana Buddhist texts also mention meditating on the images of Buddha as a means of transcendence. White argues that these may have developed from earlier Buddhist visualization exercises and meditation on objects such as the kasinas (colored disks) which are later described in the 5th century Vissudhimagga where one meditates on the object until one can see it purely as a visualization, or ‘eidetic image’. Again if one compares this to astral projection techniques one might see a parallel. Later in tantric technology this type of thing was extensively practiced, particularly with deities. In fact, one of the key features of ‘taking over a body’ is the uniting one’s body with/as the body of the un-deluded luminous deity. Although White does not mention this there is here a clear parallel with the Tantric Buddhist notions of the inner samayasattva, or ‘commitment being’, and the outer  jnanasattva, or ‘wisdom being’ just as in the inner and outer purusas. In tantra this is all clearly laid out as ‘the path of method’ as is all yoga. In Tibetan Buddhism there are these two paths – Method and Wisdom. White compares the early Mahayana ‘cosmic Buddha’ to similar notions of Krsna as the cosmic person. One of the powers of yogis is that of memory and visualization is one way to develop it. According to Indian valid cognition theories if one can remember things exceedingly exactly then one can experience that past as the present. This may bear some reality as we now know that the brain can react the same way to an imagined vision as to a real one. White contrasts this power of memory to what he calls the ‘yoga of the masses’ – that of possession of other bodies similar to the difference between embodied ascent and disembodied ascent. So in this sense White would see the goals of the paths of Method (presumably embodied ascent) and Wisdom (presumably disembodied ascent) as different. This is usually not the case in Tibetan Buddhism as the paths are said to lead to the same state of enlightenment – though there are cases in the Mahasiddha tradition where one attains lesser siddhis than the full mahamudra-siddhi and it is also said that after attainment of mahamudra-siddhi one ‘goes’ to the realm of the dakinis, or wisdom-beings. This might be similar to the realms of the masters of yoga described in the Puranas and many other Indian texts. The Saivites have these visionary ascent motifs as well and White sees these new ‘disembodied ascents’ as a new theism in the Vaisnava, Saivaite, and Buddhist traditions simultaneously. White mentions that the embodied ascent came to be seen as less desirable than the disembodied ascent. In the Tibetan Buddhist system it is perhaps not seen as less desirable but less direct. He states that the Bhagavad Gita emphasizes the superiority of bhakti (devotional) yogi while the later tantras emphasize the jnana (wisdom) and karma (action) yogas. He sees the same two-tired set-up in the Patanjali system where the psycho-somatic yogas are subjugated in importance by the analytical yogas – so again knowing replaces going. White goes through Samkhya and various Saivite models to further this point of the two-tiered soteriology.

The next subject is that of utkranta, or ‘yogic suicide’. This refers to a tantric/yogic technique where the practitioner abandons his or her body at will. One can sense this also in the stories of great yogis and meditators who seem to die at the precise time of their choosing – though the signs of immanent death may or may not be present. In Indian myth one might see this as the self-sacrifice of Shiva’s wife Sati and her re-incarnation as his wife Parvati. Yogic suicide also has obvious similarities to the willed death of the chariot-warrior.

The next section goes through the science of entering another body utilizing Indian theories of perception. These theories have to do with the eye apprehending the seen object with light, through rays (or reins), so vision itself is seen as a sort of possessing or taking over/entering of the object seen. This refers to ordinary perception. Through yogic perception a yogi might similarly identify and transfer consciousness to an object or person. This is all based on the eye and Sun (as source of light). I can think of another relation of this idea as the “attainment” of the non-dual state as a union of subject and object, where the perceiver and the perceived are united in the act of perception.

In discussing the sun, the eye, and death, White notes that during the Kushan empire the cult of the sun god Mithra, as Mihira, aka Mihr and Bactrian Miiro was re-introduced to Western India. He notes the solar rays emanating from the heads of Persian gods (such as Mithra) from the eastern Parthian empire in the 1st  century BC came to emanate from the heads of Kushan Indo-Greek kings a few centuries later and at around the same time  – from the heads of buddhas and bodhisattvas in a similar manner. Another innovation of Kushan times was the introduction of the Mesopotamian solar calendar to India which revolutionized Vedic astrology – although I know several Vedic astrologers that might dispute this. They suggest the Vedic astrologers had their own solar calendar but the evidence is against them. It is possible that the Mesopotamian version trickled in earlier – even from Indus Valley times but possibly from the 3rd century BC where in Sri Lanka after the introduction of Buddhism there is reference to Babylonian oracles. In any case it is during this Kushan time period of the earliest centuries CE that White thinks Visnu and Siva took on more solar attributes, or specifically Avestan ones. The South Asian motifs of the Sun giving, taking, and transforming life are pervasive, says White. The sun warms yet burns things up with its heat and changes things like its other manifestation, of fire. Its rays both animate and consume and so may the light passing through the eye of the well-trained yogi. White goes through several more mythic stories of penetrating the solar door to the realm of brahman. The change from the chariot-warrior’s and Brahmin priest’s going to the god realm through the solar disk to the meditating yogi’s disembodied transition may have occurred to the east the Vedic homeland in the greater Magadha region where Buddhism, Jainism, and Ajivikism (forest asceticism) developed. Both Hindu (Mahabharata) and Buddhist sources indicate that Buddhist monks and nuns were involved in the yogic practice of “entering the body of another being”. In the later Vissudhimagga this is referred to as “penetrating other minds.”  White mentions one Upanishadic account of a student being penetrated by a teacher that he suggests as “proto-tantric initiation.” It is common in Tibetan Buddhism and in Saivite Tantra as well to visualize the guru in one’s heart-center radiating blessings outward. This guru-yoga is a key way of strengthening the bond between teacher and student and passing on the teaching-energy of the lineage. White notes the pre-eminence of this technique in Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism and refers to it as “visionary theism.” I don’t think that term is entirely apt for in Tibetan Buddhism tantra is a technique/method/technology to be discarded when one accomplishes mastery. The deities are tools rather than gods so in some sense it would be a contrived visionary theism as an extension of meditation technique. Visualization of Buddhas and bodhisattvas made of light, of the 5 colors – white, red, blue, yellow, and green – represent the five aggregates commonly mistaken for a self and purified as the five transcendent awarenesses (five types of gnosis) in the images of the deities. In essence it is the body-matching, which is again similar to some astral techniques of the Western Esoteric traditions, that is the feature that links it to the yogic body possession motif. In the various epics and stories where overtaking the body of another is applied there is variation in using the technique for good or ill. There is some discussion of the Bhargavas or Bhrgus – destructive mages of the Atharva Veda and Gopatha Brahmana –the latter which may refer to an Avestan tradition rather than Vedic. White sees this and similar traditions as another re-importation of Avestan/Persian ideas during the epic period which coincides with the Persian rule of the Kushan empire. These re-importations may also have influenced the development of tantric traditions which began a few centuries later.

Next we come to a related yogic power, that of projecting multiple bodies. Even in Patanjali’s Yogas Sutra the question is asked, “Now when the yogi constructs many bodies do they have one mind or many minds?” The answer given is that the one mind of the yogi first constructs multiple minds which inhabit multiple bodies all subjugated under the control of the yogi. Sankara utilized the same theme as multiple body-minds under the will of the yogi. To me this brings to mind some of the Buddhist Anuttarayoga (Highest Yoga) tantras where many deities (up to several hundred) may be visualized at one time and indeed there are several tantras and abhisekas where mass visualization occur of deities filling the universe. Buddha’s wisdom eye or dharma eye may be another aspect of opening to the possibility of projecting multiple bodies – as here we have the eye-sun-rays-animating motif again. Indeed in texts like Gampopa’s ‘Jewel Ornament of Liberation” there are the powers of the bodhisattvas of the various levels, or bhumis, given, and with each level one is able to emanate more and more bodies. This gradualism accords as well to the notion of the opening of the wisdom eye which gradually allows one to see deeper and farther and in more detail as one progresses. So here we see that the wisdom eye is akin to the yogic perception which probably began with the special powers of the Vedic rishis, or seers. The Buddhist Vissudhimagga also notes as siddhi (iddhi) or power, the ability to replicate oneself. White also talks about vibhuti-pada, or ‘omni-presencings’ from the Yoga Sutra. Krsna’s omni-presencing in the Bhagavad Gita where he shows Arjuna his Universal Form of infinite copies of himself is probably the most famous example of this. Here it is referred to as vibhuti yoga, or the yoga of omni-presencing. As for an actual technique in how to take over another’s body through yoga White recounts a 9th century Kasmiri text, Netra Tantra, where techniques of transcendent, subtle, and gross yoga are given. The transcendent yoga practiced by yoginis, women called ‘yokers’ or ‘joiners’ who would destroy the karmic-emotional stains that tether their victims to suffering existence by eating their bodies thus uniting them with Siva. The gross yoga involves appeasing and protecting against these yoginis. The subtle yoga refers to ways to draw in the life force of the victims. While White describes this as a hostile takeover of bodies one might also detect a hint of metaphor here as the yoginis mentioned seem to be seen as magical beings. Also in the Netra Tantra is the subtle meditation given as visualizing the chakras and nadis. White notes that this is called meditation and not yoga as it has come to be identified with. The technique from a commentary to the Tantra involves the yogi utilizing his eyes and the eyes of the victim so we see again the theory of perception with the eyes apprehending the object seen. White thinks this tradition is not dead and notes the work of tantric scholar-practitioner Gopinath Kavairaj (1887-1976). His guru was Swami Visshudananda who was said to have learned under a mysterious Tibetan master. Indeed in the Tibetan tradition there are such practices as the animating of corpses given in commentaries to the Six Yogas of Naropa. Naropa was an Indian tantric master whose practice lineages went to Tibet in a few slightly different forms. One method is the transference of consciousness technique known as Powa. It is said that the re-animation of corpses lineage was allowed to die out but nonetheless there are some descriptions of it in the literature, those of Marpa and Lama Tsong Khapa as examples.

The universal or cosmic yogi as the universe is equivalent to purusa/brahman/atman as the ‘self-magnifying self’. White sees this cosmic yogi as the blueprint for the development of the chakras and nadis of later yoga. He gives descriptions from various sources including those of the 12th century Jain scholar Hermacandra where the universe is seen as loka-purusa, the universal man.

He discusses “Yogic displays by Gods and Buddhas.” Here we have mention of the so-called bodies of the Buddha, particularly the nirmanakaya, or ‘emanation body’ by which the Buddhas appear as earthly beings. Although there is no reference to yoga there are numerous accounts in the Mahayana Sutras of Buddhas and bodhisattvas replicating their bodies. Descriptions also abound of powerful rays of light emanating from the body of the Buddha.  A description of the cosmic display of bodhisattva Samantabhadra mentions quadrillions of Buddha-fields filled with Buddhas emanating from every pore of the body of the bodhisattva. Siva as lord of yogis replicates ten million versions of himself as does Krsna in the Bhagavad Gita. As does Buddha and Siva, Krsna fills the universe with his presence in his holographic display. Thus he is called ‘master of yoga’. Another of his manifestations in this regard is his dancing simultaneously with the gopi girls. They each see him as their one divine lover. Siva is also mahesvara, the master of yoga, seated as guru in the hearts of yogis. White makes an interesting comparison of Siva and Krsna. He notes that Siva often destroys by swallowing so that as a destroyer he condenses the many into one perhaps similar to the subtle yoga depicted in the Netra Tantra where the victims are eaten by the yoginis. Krsna-Visnu-Narayana is most often depicted as a creator who replicates the many from the one perhaps like the sun which replicates through its rays. Visnu is a solar deity from Vedic times while Siva is more often associated with the moon. White thinks that both were re-solarized with the Kushan-era re-introduction of solar motifs in conjunction with the simultaneous new theism.

White also gives a very interesting account of a case of yoga meaning ‘astrological conjunction’ where a tale of yogis – the stories of Sukra (also a name for planet Venus) and Kavya Usanas - may refer to a Venus transit where Venus passes across the face of the sun. The introduction of the Mesopotamian solar year would also have added to the increasing solar symbolism of the times. The lunar astrology was associated with Siva, he who wears the crescent moon in his hair.

Yogis are often divinized in tradition but sometimes they are depicted as dangerous and as evil-doers. The divine prototype of Saivite yogis is the fearsome god Bhairava just as the prototype of a Buddhist siddha is the wrathful Heruka.

The final chapter is a long one about Mughal-era, Modern and Post-Modern Yogis. Here the book shifts gears and describes many European, Chinese, and Arabic accounts of yogis and their Sufi counterparts, the fakirs. Here we hear stories of gangs of yogis blowing horns to announce their presence, rudely demanding alms, carrying weapons, and acting as traders, spies, and mercenaries. There are many strange accounts given. In Mughal times the practices of self-mortification came to the forefront and continues to the present. This may have more to do with influence from the Muslim fakirs. The hatha yoga techniques developed by the Naths were more in vogue as well. Gangs of yogi-tricksters would crowd the marketplaces while yogi soldiers were local forces to be reckoned with. In Mughal times yogis acted as “alchemists, healers, poisoners, and purveyors of aphrodisiacs. Even Mughal kings went to them for aphrodisiacs and healing potions and yogis were also consulted for fertility by women. Yogis of various sects were reputed to have mastery over sexuality, being tested when naked among beautiful women groping and rubbing them to see if they got an erection. On the other hand, there were many other stories of yogis seducing women. Many of the sinister yogi narratives and the “yogi romances” with the intrigues of kings and spies are from this period from about the late 14th century to the late 18th century. When the British came to run India they had trouble with the tribal and political power of yogi groups. They preferred them to be spiritual rather than political and coerced this through statutes. The Hindu reform campaign of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) and Mahatma Gandhi’s later advocation of “patriotic asceticism” as well as the influence of Victorian British sentiments seemed to tame the wild yogi image as the tantrism came to be seen as questionable and more associated with undesirable elements. The father of modern yoga – Krsnamacarya was guided by illustrations from medieval texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradapika and the Gheranda Samhita which came out of the well-established institutions of the Nath Order of Yogis. Of course, the Naths were also in the center of the yogic intrigues and warlordism of Mughal times.

As a summary, this was an excellent academic study and quite well researched by one quite knowledgeable of the subject. The only thing missing was perhaps more summary and lists/charts/tables of his interesting observations and conclusions – in short, better organization. Other than that it is a great book and certainly one of the best histories of yoga ever written. Again, I think the title does not do the book justice or perhaps a good subtitle would have clarified things better.