“‘It is otherwise in Hind,’ said Kim drily. ‘Their Gods are many-armed and malignant. Let them alone.'”
— Rudyard Kipling, Kim
World Yoga Day
In case you missed it, 21 June is now World Yoga Day.
To kick-off the inaugural holiday, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi joined a crowd 35,000 strong for a half-hour outdoor mass yoga workout in Delhi. As it happened to be an otherwise slow news day, images of the paunchy PM contorting on a mat duly appeared on screens around the world.
In addition to the event in Delhi, according to the BBC website (21 June 2015), of the 193 UN member countries, “…celebrations will be held in 192 countries — the exception is Yemen, because of the conflict there; events are being held in 251 cities in six continents; 30,000 people will perform yoga in Times Square in New York.”
That same day, South Asia correspondent Justin Rowlatt pointed out the cynicism behind this burst of spirituality.
According to one estimate the worldwide yoga industry has boomed into a $30 billion-plus business. Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit ashrams and undertake yoga classes in India every year. Mr Modi is hoping tens of thousands more can be persuaded to come. But he’s also got an eye on the country’s wider image abroad. He sees yoga as a wonderful way to promote India in the world. What better badge of nationhood than this ancient tradition of health and harmony?
Yoga purists will balk at the commercialization of their beliefs, yet scholars of Eastern religions may find fault with something deeper. While it’s true that some concept of “yoga” has existed in South Asian thought for millennia, this “ancient tradition” was not always dedicated to “health and harmony”.
The modern phrase has been engineered to conjure up an image of a longhaired yogi in saffron robes sitting in lotus position on a hillside many thousands of years ago in blissful contemplation of the cosmos. He’s an ancestor in an unbroken chain of metaphysical enlightenment that links him to the group in spandex assuming the “downward dog” pose at the corner gym.
If this image sounds a little farfetched, that’s because it’s patently false. We know this in part because of the work of scholars like David Gordon White, a leader in the field, who has published numerous books exploring the history of yoga and tantra. With White’s research in hand, it’s possible to see through the smoke and mirrors of the $30 billion global yoga industry.
White the Scholar
White’s bona fides are formidable: Since 2011, he has been the J. F. Rowny Professor of Comparative Religion at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In addition to his native English, White reads Sanskrit, ancient Greek, Latin, Old Rajasthani, Hindi, French, Danish, German, Italian, and Spanish and speaks French, Hindi, and Danish. He was awarded a PhD with Honors from the Divinity School at The University of Chicago, and has studied Hinduism at the prestigious École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris. White is the only foreign scholar to have ever been admitted to the Centre d’Études de l’Inde et de l’Asie du Sud in Paris, where he has been a Research Fellow since 1992. He has received numerous Guggenheim and Fullbright fellowships. His books are reviewed in The New York Review of Books. In short, you argue with White at your own peril.
As for the “ancient tradition of health and harmony”, White has shown that the word “yoga” itself means “yoking” and in ancient times was associated with warriors on chariots who projected themselves past the sun to enter Heaven. This stuff about health and harmony didn’t become part of the yoga lexicon until many centuries later.
The meditational methods found in modern yoga techniques are themselves based on various modes of interpretation of an ancient text known as The Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali (compiled around 400 CE), the modern understanding of which is in turn derived largely from the work of a classical commentator named Vyasa, who followed a philosophical system known as Samkhya, which was influenced by Vedic ideals of substance dualism, or that mind and body are separate. Put another way, consciousness and the physical are completely individuated. Freedom from the binds of karma and the wheel of reincarnation may be attained if the consciousness becomes conscious of itself as fully separate from physical reality.
As for “Classic” or “Raja” yoga, this “ancient tradition” is really only about 150 years old. As White has shown, the main promulgator of Raja Yoga, Swami Vivekananda, was strongly influenced by the spiritualism of groups like the Theosophical Society, which was co-founded by the Russian-born Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Blavatsky believed that the Yoga Sūtras, which had been largely forgotten in India by the 19th century, would lead one on a contemplative path to the supreme self, or god-self within, itself part of a mysterious universal “oversoul”. Vivekananda first introduced his concept of “Raja Yoga” to the Occidental world at the 1892 World Parliament of Religions at Chicago and he found such success in the West that he stayed in America until his death in 1902.
Aspects of these ideas eventually became bound-up with the postural techniques that originated with an Indian guru named Tirumalai Krishnamacharya and three of his followers who, only in the ’50s, began to popularize a style amalgamated from medieval Hatha Yoga concepts of a “hydraulic” body, wrestling positions from southwest India, and colonial British military callisthenics. It’s from their efforts that the positions and breathing techniques practiced in modern yoga classes came into being.
Despite the modern innovations in meditation and exercise, “yoga” remains a flexible term that need not be bound up with notions of health and self-actualization. In truth, in ancient India, “yogis” were considered to be witch doctors that practiced dark arts to harness unnatural powers such as the ability to control other humans both living and dead, and to fly using human corpses as vehicles, as well as tele-vision, mind-melds, shape-shifting, immortality, extra-sensory perception, and indestructible adamantine bodies. If these sound like cool superpowers, know that yogis are considered evil. Even today, as White points out, yogis form stock villains in Bollywood films and disobedient children are told “Be good or the yogi will come and take you away.”
As sinister as this phenomenon sounds, part of White’s research is to restore the understanding of historic yoga as a counterbalance to the modern New Age spirituality and self-help commercialism that now dominates the practice.
For example, in his 2014 book on the Yoga Sūtras, part of the Princeton University Press Lives of Great Religious Books series, he explicates Patanjali’s four-word definition of yoga (lacking any verbs, mind you) that has become the foundation of modern meditational practice: yoga-citta-vritti-nirodha.
While “citta” has a wide range of meanings in early Sanskrit, the most adequate nontechnical translation of the term is “thought”. As for “vritti,” it means “turning,” and is related to the –vert in the English words introvert (“turned inward”) and extrovert (“turned outward”) as well as invert, subvert, pervert, revert, and so forth. Nirodha is a term meaning “stoppage” or “restraint” in Sanskrit. A simple translation of yoga-citta-vritti-nirodha should then read something like “Yoga is the stoppage of the turnings of thought.”
White offers 22 different translations of this phrase from sources ranging from handbooks on modern yoga to the work of other scholars. Here are five:
Yoga is to still the patternings of consciousness.
Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions.
Yoga happens when there is stilling (in the sense of continual and vigilant watchfulness) of the movement of thought—without expression or suppression—in the indivisible intelligence in which there is no movement.
Yoga is the control of thought-waves in the mind.
Yoga is the icy silence of post-disintegration.
That’s a whole lot of interpretation of four nouns lacking a verb.
Perhaps the most eloquent statement on the seemingly contradictory purpose of yoga as defined by Pantajali comes from a poem by Swami Shankarananda, quoted by White:
To catch the mind and keep it still,
Is no small problem for my porous will;
As many times as I shut it down,
Unceasing thoughts on me rebound.
In youth I tried through alcohol,
To ease my stress and cool my gall;
In later years I turned to grass,
The effects were good—but did not last.
At last with failing hopes I turned,
To Eastern paths, and my soul yearned
To scale the mystic heights of bliss.
Alas, no easy message this.
And now with age and turmoil weary,
All that’s left me is this query:
Will heart break or mind implode,
Before my vrittis do nirode?
Then there is the “full lotus” position that has become the icon of the modern yoga movement. In his 2009 book Sinister Yogis, White employs a combination of archeological and textual evidence to demonstrate that its origins lay far from the concept of yoga. It can in fact be traced to first century BCE to second century CE representations of Indo-Scythian and Kushan royalty on coins that travelled along Silk Road trading routes. As White points out, the term “lotus position” (padmāsana) derives from a throne (āsana) which resembles a lotus (padma). This type of throne is found in South Asian sculpture dating from the third century CE onward. Over time, the royal seated position became associated with both Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
Another part of these ancient cosmologies are occult rituals that have found their way into contemporary Western lifestyles. The marathon bouts of “tantric sex” infamously touted by celebrity rock star Sting is very far from the practice as it originated in India.
As White demonstrates in Kiss of the Yogini: “Tantric Sex” in its South Asian Contexts (2003), the tantric cult rituals often required orgies in cremation grounds that involved non-reproductive sex acts such as oral couplings and the drinking of mixed bodily fluids including semen and menstrual blood. The word “tantra” itself means “the warp of reality”. The rituals were meant to summon female entities known as Yoginis. It was believed that the Yoginis would incarnate themselves within female worshipers having sex with the men, resulting in the granting of supernatural powers such as flight and immortality.
To prove the point succinctly, the carvings on the roof struts of the Pashupatinath Temple in Bhaktapur, Nepal, are far more reminiscent of modern Internet fetish sites than what most people associate with spiritual lovemaking.
It should be pointed out that White’s books are, at the end of the day, scholarly texts that assume an audience that already knows the difference between Vedas, Puranas, and Upanisads. Readers lacking a passing familiarity with varying schools of Buddhism, or who think Bhagavad Gita is a type of unleavened bread, might find themselves bogged down in the arcane South Asian nomenclature. Words like “pleonastic” and “mesocosmic” pepper the books. The endnotes of The Alchemical Body (1998) take up nearly 50 percent of the total text.
While the scholarship in White’s books can often be daunting, he makes a point to connect his own often strange experiences to studies of the ancient world—from fortune telling Sikhs in Trader Joe’s parking lots to hidden tantric magicians he encounters while trekking in Nepal, White’s work often links past and present to create a living continuum from ancient times to our current age. Chapter titles that echo pop culture productions, like “Desperately Seeking Nāgārjuna” or “The Man With the Golden Finger and Gorakh’s Smithy” help to keep the tone light. Non-specialists can safely skim sentences such as “Like the rest of the Kādi Prakarana this chapter is Śākta in its orientation” without losing much of the overall meaning of the books.
For the lay reader, it’s as if White knows the DNA of the religions of the region, especially Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Reading his books is like taking a master class in Eastern metaphysics that is accessible to hobbyists and specialists alike. What his books illustrate are the amazing and often unexpected crosscurrents between religions that these days are conceptualized as radically different. There is no one “ancient tradition of health and harmony”. Instead, one comes away from his books with an impression of interpenetrations between spiritualities that have led these cosmologies, and attendant practices such as yoga and tantra, to where they are today.
White took take time from his research and travels to discuss his work with me.
Travels, Demons, and Fabulations
When did you first visit South Asia? How often do you return?
I first went in 1974-75 on a study abroad program. I lived and studied in Benares for eight months. I returned several times between 1976 and 1999. I have not returned since then.
Who would you say has had the greatest impact on your own thinking and approach to your subject? Is there any one specific person or school of thought?
Originally, it was the writings of Mircea Eliade that had the greatest influence on my approach to the study of religion in general and South Asian religions specifically. Soon after, I discovered the early writings of Wendy O’Flaherty (later Wendy Doniger). I later had both Eliade and Doniger as professors and members of my PhD committee at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago in the early eighties. While there, I became entirely wedded to the Chicago model of the History of Religions, which was in fact something more like comparative religion without the history.
I’ve since diverged from that, preferring a positivist historical approach to both South Asian and cross-cultural religious, cultural and mythological traditions.
Do you feel you’ve connected with South Asia through the study of ancient religious practices?
I feel especially connected to the medieval South Asian religious traditions, which have all but disappeared from India (at least from modern urban Indian society), but which continue to flourish in Nepal and, as I understand from what I have read, and in Bali in Indonesia.
Have you ever felt that in your travels and studies you’ve encountered something ineffable?
I had a couple of experiences in India that challenged my rationalist mindset. But that nonetheless remains my default mode. I do not believe in the supernatural, but I find other people’s beliefs about the supernatural to be about the most interesting thing that one can study.
Given the size of the global yoga industry, do you ever feel that your scholarly work is lost in a sea of crass commercialism? For whom, beyond academic specialists, are you writing your books? What impact do you hope they have?
There can be no doubt that that sea of crass commercialism exists. Like astrology, there is too much money to be made in yoga for the charlatans and religious entrepreneurs to just walk away from it. But I have always written my books for a target audience of open-minded non-specialists, which is why I try to make the writing lively and engaging.
I’m gratified that my writing has been embraced by many from the “yoga world”. My books sell fairly well among general readerships, and I recently held a workshop on the history of yoga at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health that was quite successful. There’s a critical mass of people who are curious enough about the yoga they practice to want to go beyond the clichéd stuff that most yoga teachers propagate.
On the other hand, your work tends to rattle cages, both for domestic practitioners of yoga and tantra as well as for Hindu nationalists and “purists” in India and beyond. Sometimes this reaction is outright hostile. What is your response to people who attack your work?
The so-called eternal truths these traditionalists/purists espouse are for the most part grounded in nineteenth-century paradigms that combine Western romanticism and spiritualism with urban Indian reform agendas. It’s far easier to shoot the messenger than to reexamine one’s own received ideas in the light of any message that would challenge the same.
Unless I’m mistaken, you’ve indicated in your writing that you practice yoga. How has your research affected your own practice?
I practiced yoga for about a decade, starting in Benares in the eighties, when I began working on The Alchemical Body. I stopped when I moved to California in 1996, because I found that swimming in outdoor pools generated the same endorphins as yoga practice. But even when I was practicing, I compartmentalized: my practice did not affect my research, and my research did not affect my practice.
Photo courtesy David Gordon White (2012)
After four books plus an edited anthology on the subject, do you feel you’ve exhausted the scholarly mine of yogic tradition? Is there more to be uncovered? What’s next in your research?
I’m sure there’s more to be uncovered on the yoga tradition, and younger scholars like Mark Singleton, James Mallinson and Jason Birch are putting out some new and interesting material, particularly on early modern developments in India. But I myself am no longer interested in the subject. My current research is taking me back to more comparative topics, particularly contacts and exchanges between India, China and the Mediterranean world in the ancient and medieval periods in matters of religion, folklore and mythology.
As I’ve written elsewhere, “both the Silk Road and ancient and medieval maritime trade routes were information superhighways, and a portion of that information was demonological. It’s easy to imagine soldiers, sailors, merchants, diviners, monks, and priests swapping amulets and spells at Silk Road halting points and ports. Demons and the techniques to control them were as much a commodity in the ancient and medieval world as germs, guns, and steel.”
That sounds like a fascinating corrective to Jared Diamond’s overused meme.
Regarding your work on yoga, now that you’re handing the torch, so to speak, to a younger generation of scholars, what specifically do you see as promising avenues of inquiry?
Much still needs to be done concerning patronage, the relationship between religious specialists and their royal / aristocratic / merchant / landowning clients. The relationship between urban and rural religion in the medieval and modern periods has yet to be adequately addressed. As far as primary source material on Hindu Tantra is concerned, the surface has barely been scratched, even with the flowering of tantric studies over the past few decades. When one looks at the catalogues of India’s manuscript archives, one finds hundreds upon hundreds of titles of works that no one has looked at. Many are on the topic of what would fall under the heading of magic and sorcery, and one of my grad students, Aaron Ullrey, is currently completing an outstanding dissertation on the subject.
Your research undoubtedly demonstrates that modern theories and practices of yoga and tantra are recent iterations of very ancient—and often contradictory—cosmologies. However, if the modern practices “work” for the people who perform them, do you, as a scholar, nonetheless believe that they are invalid because of their modernity? Or perhaps you believe that “if it works, it works”, even if they are essentially a modern concoction?
I have never said that modern yoga practice is “invalid” because it’s not grounded in ancient traditions. I neither doubt nor deny that many of the invented practices of the past 100 years or so have provided great physical, spiritual, and psychological solace to millions of people.
What I maintain, however, is that it’s disingenuous if not dishonest on the part of yoga gurus to make claims for the authenticity of their invented practices on the basis of unsubstantiated claims as to their antiquity. In some cases, it isn’t their fault: the default hermeneutical position in India has always been to claim that what is new is old, usually on the basis of some mythological tradition. As a positivist historian (as opposed to an “insider” practitioner), I cannot accept such claims out of hand, which is why my books have been devoted, at least in part, to deconstructing such pious fabulations.
In My End Is My Beginning
As a lay person interested in Eastern religions, and as someone who is both fascinated and repulsed by modern forms of commercial yoga, the most salient point of White’s scholarship for me was to strip away the myths that modern mass culture has encrusted on ancient traditions in order to package and sell them. By recovering the origins of these Eastern practices, White’s work helps to restore the often surreal and psychedelic sense of wonder that has been displaced by industrial commercialism.
So next World Yoga Day, skip “downward dog” and instead pilot a human corpse, or project your soul into another human and control him like a puppet, or drink a cocktail of semen and uterine blood in a graveyard to seek immortality.
If anyone asks what you’re doing, just tell them you’re practicing yoga.