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.

No comments:

Post a Comment