Posts tagged ‘Claim Back Yoga’

January 2, 2011

Yoga Asana, the Ancient Hindu Legacy

by Sarvesh K Tiwari

||नमो योगाय योगेश्वराय योगसिद्धाय योगशास्त्राय योगाधिराजाय नमो नमः||

आलोक्य सर्व शास्त्राणि विचार्य च पुनः पुनः, इदमेकम सुनिष्पन्नम योगशास्त्रम परम्मतम

We have seen in the previous part how the identity of pata~njali, about which Hindus have never had doubts, is maliciously obliterated by the western commentators of yoga.

Having obfuscated yoga-sUtra and having reduced its author to obscurity, next our western scholars say the following to reject the ancientness (and indigenousness) of yogAsana, an important pillar in the edifice of yoga:

“…The text usually cited as the definitive source for Yoga is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, but the familiar poses that are part of Hatha Yoga are generally traced to Shiva cults, the god Shiva being its founder. The problem that is being swept aside is that exact dates cannot be assigned to any of these texts…” – Deepak Chopra

“…But these texts say nothing about the physical “positions” or “postures” that distinguish contemporary yoga. The postures developed much later, some from medieval Hatha Yoga and Tantra, but more from nineteenth-century European traditions such as Swedish gymnastics, British body-building, Christian Science, and the YMCA, and still others devised by twentieth-century Hindus such as T. Krishnamacharya and B. K. S. Iyengar, reacting against those non-Indian influences.” – Wendy Doniger

We are reminded of the remark of Prof. Surendranatha Dasgupta on such western yoga scholars in one of his lectures on Yoga to the students of Calcutta Univerity several decades back: “(These) unsympathetic and shallow-minded scholars lack the imagination and the will to understand the Indian thought and culture of its past.”

But even a very sympathetic scholar and a Hinduphile Dr. Koenraad Elst colludes with the general view of the above scholars when he says:

“…the description of these specific techniques is found in the Hatha Yoga classics which do not predate the 13th century: the Gheranda Samhita, the Shiva Samhita and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika… There too, a number of asana-s or postures is described, though important ones now popular in the Western (and westernized-Indian) yoga circuit, particularly standing ones, are still not in evidence even in these more recent texts. In the Yoga Sutra, they are totally absent. Patanjali merely defines Asana, ‘seat’, as ‘comfortable but stable’… I don’t think any other asana postures except those for simply sitting up straight have been recorded before the late-medieval Gheranda Samhita, Hatha Yoga Pradipika and such.” – Dr. Koenraad Elst

Let us examine.

Having commented upon the yama-niyamau, pata~njali describes Asana, the third great limb of the yoga, in the following three yoga-sUtra-s:

sthira sukhamAsanam (2.46), prayatnashaithilyAnantyasamApattibhyAm (2.47), and tato dvandvAnabhighAt (2.48).

The view of Dr. Elst, that “pata~njali merely defines Asana as ‘seat’, ‘comfortable but stable’”, seems very simplistic reduction of the first sUtra sthirasukhamAsanam. Had Asana just meant so little as to merely mean a “comfortable but stable seat”, was it really worth enumerating as one of the limbs of the aShTA~Nga yoga? Would it not be pretty obvious to a rAjayoga student to anyway naturally take a “comfortable but stable seat” for practicing yoga? Why formulize upon Asana at all?

Indeed, the word “Asana” in simple saMskR^ita, in itself means to sit comfortably, according to its vyutpatti: “Asyate Asate anena iti Asanam” (deriving from the same dhAtu from which English ‘sit’ and ‘seat’ also came). That a sUtra-kAra of pata~njali’s fame, who scrupulously economizes on even half of the short vowels (as he says in the mahAbhAShya), should spend not one but three precious sUtra-s to Asana, when all he meant by it merely was a “comfortable but stable seat”, is hard to fathom. pata~njali must have a deeper meaning when he says sthirasukhamAsanam. What does he signify by the specific indication of ‘sthira-sukha’ in the sUtra, when ‘Asana’ itself would be sufficient had his intention been such a basic meaning as suggested?

The traditional Hindu wisdom says that deciphering the sUtras without help of an authoritative commentary, and better still under the guidance of a siddha preceptor, is fraught with the danger of gross errors for laymen. We refer therefore to the authorities of how they decipher what pata~njali implies in this first sUtra?

vyAsa explains the meaning of pata~njali here by considering the joint of “sthirasukha” and “Asana” to be the karmadhAraya samAsa, making the sUtra mean, “That Asana is here called Asana which yields sthira-sukha i.e. unwavering delight”.

AchArya shaMkara in his own TIkA explains this sUtra as, “yasmin Asane sthitasya manogAtrANAmupajAyate sthiratvam, duHkham cha yena nAbhavati tadabhyaset.” [Practice is recommended of that Asana which leads the practitioner’s mind to immovableness and constancy, and does not cause any discomfort.]

vAchaspati mishra in the eighth century explains this sUtra in his tattva vaiShAradi as, “sthiram nishchalam yatsukham sukhAvaham tadAsana”: Asana is that which yields a comfort that is lasting, stable, and unwavering. (Although vAchaspati also treats the samAsa between sthira and sukha as bahubrIhi: “sthiram sukham yena tat”).

But the clearest explanation of the sUtra comes from our favourite scholar, bhojadeva the learned rAjan: “Asana, the posture. Posture without motion. One that leads the practitioner to the not-flickering and lasting comfort. Only that type of Asana is Asana-proper, counted as one of the eight limbs of yoga.”

So, all these eminent authors on yoga understand pata~njali’s instruction to not mean just any “comfortable but stable seat”, which by definition ‘Asana’ anyway is, but specifically an Asana that gives the sthira sukha to the yogAbhyAsI helping him reach a concentrated mind; such an Asana alone is called yogAsana. Like ‘chitta’, pata~njali is not defining ‘Asana’, as he considers Asana to have been already understood earlier, he is only adding these further qualifications to it.

But is Wendy Doniger right when she says that the old texts including YS “say nothing about the physical “positions” or “postures” that distinguish contemporary yoga”, a view which Dr. Elst and Deepak Chopra seem to share? What about Chopra’s opinion when he says that the “the familiar poses are generally traced to Shiva cults”?

Let us explore this next.

Contrary to the above assertions, we find that ancient authorities mention the yogAsana-s, referring to them by name. Even the fairly antiquated commentaries of the pata~njali’s yoga sUtra itself, preceding the haThayoga dIpikA and gheraNya saMhita etc. by several centuries, already explain that Master pata~njali particularly implied these same standard “postures” when he instructed upon Asana in the yoga-sUtra.

Consider the oldest available commentary on yoga sUtra by vyAsa. The author ends his explanation of pata~njali’s ‘sthira-sukham-Asanam’ with a list of the names of Asana-s, “…tadyathA padmAsanam bhadrAsanam vIrAsanam daNDAsanaM sopAshrayaM parya~Nkam krau~nchaniShadanam, hastiniShadanam, uShTRa niShadanam, samasaMsthAnaM sthirasukham yathAsukham cha ityevamAdIni”, that is, “Asana like the padmAsana or the bhadrAsana, vIrAsana, daNDAsana, or (squatting ) postures like parya~Nka or sopAshraya, or postures named after krau~ncha bird, or the Camel posture or the Elephant posture, or samAsana, or any other comfortable (instructed) posture which provide sthira sukha”.  This elaborate list, though not exhaustive as the author says these are examples, is from at least as old as the 6th century if not older.

Explaining the same sUtra of ‘sthirasukhamAsanam’, AchArya shaMkara also concludes his explanation of pata~njali’s instruction with, “…tadyathA shAstrAntara prasiddhAni nAmAni padmAsanAdIni pradarshyante”, meaning “…that is, for example, those well known postures explained in the other shAstras, like the padmAsana etcetera.”] He even desribes, out of these, padmAsana, bhadrAsana and daNDAsana in instructive details.

An astute reader cannot fail to notice the casualness shown here in mentioning the representative names of the postures, when both the above authors refer to a few names of the Asana-s, followed by ‘Adi’, etcetera, meaning that the reader is anyway easily familiar with them.

Also observe the words AchArya shaMkara uses above, “prasiddhAni nAmAni”, explicitly signifying that many Asanas were already famous by specific names and were not worth repeating there.

Besides the above, further note the important word he uses, ‘shAstrAntara’. It is significant that shaMkara not only refers to these postures as famous, but also says those are ‘shAstrAntara’, or explained elsewhere beyond the yogasUtra or by the “other shAstra-s”. Of course we have no means at present to say which other shAstra he was referring here, but probably some older material no more extant.

In an entirely different book, that is the celebrated bramha-sUtra-bhAShya, AchArya shaMkara further refers to the Asana postures in a similar vein when he says, “ata eva padmakAdInAmAsana visheShANAmupadesho yogashAstre”: “…This is why yoga-shAstra particularly prescribes the postures like padmAsana etcetera…” (See BSB 4.1.10 under ‘smaranti cha’)

Still elsewhere, and very significantly, AchArya shaMkara alludes to the yoga darshana and its development from the vaidika roots. In the same bhAShya talking about yoga system what strikes his mind as uniquely characteristic of yoga, is its elaborate system of Asana! AchArya remarks: “AsanAdi-kalpanA-purassaram bahu-prapa~ncham yoga-vidhAnam shvetAshvataropaniShAdi dR^ishyate” [“Such emphasis on postures and related amplified prapa~ncha, one can already sense in the (old) upaniShada-s such as that of shvetAshvatAra etcetera”]

This is a very important testimony we get from the AchArya that even as far back as in his time, he understood the importance of the elaborate system of Asana postures to have gone back to the ancient upaniShada times, and their development being of a very obscure antiquity.

We return again to the genius bhoja rAjan, who, still a few centuries before the haThayoga classics that are available to us, enumerates some specific yoga postures. Having explained the meaning of sthirasukhamAsanam, he ends his statement by saying, “padmAsana-daNDAsana-svastikAsanAdi | tadyadA sthiraM niShkampaM sukhaM anudvejanIyaM bhavati tadA tadyogA~NgatAM bhajate”, meaning,”…such as padmAsana, daNDAsana, svAstikAsana etcetera. When the (practice of) a posture (advances, it) becomes (a vehicle) yielding of a stable unwavering sukha and is not uncomfortable (anymore). That is when it becomes, that much-praised limb of the (eight) yoga a~Nga-s, the blessed Asana.]

Here rAjA bhoja also interprets pata~njali to have really meant the specific yoga postures, giving here the names of postures such as padma, daNDa, and svAstika Asana-s. And he also adds an “Adi”, etcetera, to mean that already there must be a long list of very famous and commonly known Asana-s which he felt no need to elaborate upon beyond ‘etcetera’. The above shows, we think, that in light of these ancient authorities, we can take it that pata~njali did imply specific postures that are understood as standard yoga Asana-s, and not just any comfortable seat.

But already, even much before pata~njali himself, the Asana-s were already quite well known and practiced, as AchArya shaMkara said. We find an attestation from the Great bhArata of his observation, that the concept of Asana, that is the specific yoga postures, in the technical sense of it, was already an integral part of spiritual practice of ascetics. From the araNyakaparvan the 3rd book of mahAbhArata:

bhR^igor maharSheH putro ‘bhUch chyavano nAma bhArgavaH
samIpe sarasaH so ‘sya tapas tepe mahAdyutiH
sthANubhUto mahAtejA vIrasthAnena pANDava
atiSThat subahUn kAlAn ekadeshe vishAM pate
sa valmIko ‘bhavad R^iShir latAbhir abhisaMvR^itaH
kAlena mahatA rAjan samAkIrNaH pipIlikaiH (MBh 3.122.1-3)

[“A son was born to the great bhR^igu, chyavana by name. And he, of an exceedingly resplendent body, began to perform austerities by the side of a lake. And, O Son of pANDu, O Protector of men! He of mighty energy assumed the Posture known as the Vira, in it being quiet and still like an inanimate post, and for a long period remained immobile at the same spot in the same posture. And as a long time elapsed he was swarmed by the ants turned into an anthill covered with the creepers growing upon it.”]

In the anushAsana parvan, the thirteenth book:

vIrAsanaM vIrashayyAM vIrasthAnam upAsataH
akSayAs tasya vai lokAH sarvakAmagamAs tathA MBh 13.7.13

[“He who performs tapscharya-s sitting in the vIrAsana posture, by going to the secluded dense forest (where only the braves dare tread) and sleeping on the (hard rock,) the bed worthy for the braves, he attains to those eternal regions where all the objects of desire are fulfilled (or desires are nullified)”]

(In above, we differ in translating the verse from how the learned paNDita shrI K M Ganguly translated it. He takes the first line in sense of gaining martyrdom on the battlefield assuming the posture of vIrAsana.)

At yet another place in the same anushAsana parvan, mahAdeva is describing to umAdevI the routine of tapasyA that the ascetic siddha yogi-s perform:

yogacharyAkR^itaiH siddhaiH kAmakrodhavivarjanam
vIrashayyAm upAsadbhir vIrasthAnopasevibhiH
yuktair yogavahaiH sadbhir grIShme pa~ncatapais tathA
maNDUka-yoganiyatair yathAnyAyaniShevibhiH
vIrAsanagatair nityaM sthaNDile shayanais tathA
shItayogo ‘gniyogashcha chartavyo dharmabuddhibhiH (MBh 13.130.8–10)

[“Observant of the excellent ordinances relating to Yoga, having alleviated the passions of lust and violence, seated in the posture called vIrAsana in the midst of four fires on four sides with the sun overhead in summer months, duly practising what is called mANDUkya yoga, and sleeping on bare rocks or on the earth, these men, with hearts set upon dharma, expose themselves to the extremes of cold and warm (and are unaffected by the duality).”]

Not only do we find evidence in mahAbhArata therefore, of the importance given to the postures, specific postures, we should also observe that much before pata~njali, mahAbhArata already describes the yoga praxis in great detail. In the anushAsana parvan, it even describes the aShTA~Nga-s of yoga and even lists the famous teachers of sAMkhya and yoga, in which list pata~njali does not figure. This also means that the yoga text in the bhArata was pre-pata~njali and that by the time of pata~njali, yoga was quite a very well founded practice, its Asanas included.

In the early classical saMskR^ita literature also, we find the Asana-s mentioned. The Emperor of saMskR^ita poetry, mahAkavi kAlidAsa, already names the yaugika postures. He mentions vIrAsana in his raghuvaMsham by name (13.52) and also beautifully describes the siddhAsana through a verse. Ancient drama mR^ichcHakaTikA, going back to the BCE age, also describes yoga posture (see the opening chapter).

Dr. Elst has wondered why only sitting postures characterize or at least dominate the yogAsana-s, speculating that this is to do with the climatic conditions: that the Chinese postures being in standing position because it is wet and cold out there, whereas Hindu ones being in sitting position because of the warm climate here.

But the observation is inaccurate. Indeed we have enough textual and non-textual records of Hindu Asana-s also in standing, half-standing and leaning postures too from fairly old periods. mahAbhArata itself attests to this at multiple places, too numerous to recount, that standing postures were common for tapashcharyA. We find many ancient frescoes, murals, and bas-relief from old temples displaying the yoga postures in the standing position, see for instance the pallava temple carvings at mahAbalIpuram, dated to the 600s, depicting arjuna, bhagIratha and other characters (including a charlatan cat), to be performing the ascetics standing in the classical postures like the tADAsana and vR^ikShAsana. There are many other sources that attest to the postures in standing position, particularly for performing the tapascharyA, more specifically recorded by the early nAstika grantha-s, and both the bauddha and jaina texts record the standing postures.

vR^ikShAsana mahAbalIpuram

mahAvIra’s austerities in pristine tADAsana is all too famous. Also important to note is that the jaina-s carefully record that bhagavat mahAvIra acquired his siddhi while he was in a specific yoga posture known as the godohanAsana (see image), so called because it resembles how one milches the cow.  godohanAsana remains a classical standard yoga posture.

mahAvIra in godohanAsana

We further find traces of standard yoga postures in standing, half-standing, or leaning positions in other extra-yaugika special interest groups such as those in nATya and the practitioners of the Hindu martial arts, both of which are concerned with and utilize the standard yoga postures. The dhanurveda texts, variously titled and differently dated, tell us about specific Asana-s to be employed for specific purposes. The most complete, last redacted in the present form by around the 13th century but obviously containing much older material, the dhanurveda of vyAsa, tells the archers to assume one of the Eight Asana-s while shooting the arrow, each of which except the last, is in standing and half-standing posture. It describes each Asana and even mentions them by well known names such as the Asana-s of vishAkha, padma, and garuDa. Other and older Hindu martial art texts such as those contained within the purANa-s or bauddha pAlI sUtra-s inform us about the specific standing postures useful for practicing malla and other yuddha vidhA-s.

Coming to the climate part, yoga authors specifically mention that the Asana, by one of its very purposes, takes the body of the practitioner beyond the effects of climate and other such dualities. Explaining the last yoga sUtra on Asana, “dvandvAnabhighAt”, rAjan bhoja explicitly gives the example of climate, saying when the practitioner has perfected the yogAsana, the very effect of it is that Asana makes his body transcend and withstand the effects of extreme climate, both warm and cold.

To summarize, what the foregoing discussion aimed to show is that Asana had already acquired a technical sense during mahAbhArata, and even before, from upaniShadic times. That pata~njali does not need to define Asana itself, but simply add more specific qualifiers to it, also shows that the concept of specific Asanas was already a common knowledge. Such names of Asanas as padmAsana, daNDAsana, bhadrAsana, svAstikAsana, and vIrAsana, vajrAsana etc. were so very common and well known among the Hindus already from very early days. By as early as the 6th century we find the yoga authors not only mentioning them by name, but in a sense that it was such a common knowledge that simply indicating a few names appended by ‘etcetera’ is sufficient to indicate them all.  We also see that even these ancient Hindus were conscious about much further antiquity of the system of postures for yoga, as even AchArya shaMkara remarks about its obscurely ancient origins and wide popularity and recognition already by the time of the old layer of the upaniShada-s.  We also noted that the Asana-s, the postures, is what he takes as being a general identifying characteristic trait of the yoga system.  There are old records of not only sitting but standing, half-standing and leaning postures being practiced, and that the yoga authors were particular about Asana being for the very purpose to make the body of practitioner withstand the worldly dualities like the hot and cold climate.

The hindU-dviTa vultures delegitimizing the Hindu legacy of yogAsana remind us of how the legacies of our glorious cousins the Hellenes of Greece were also robbed away, how the fanatic pretamata first undermined, then outlawed, and finally secularized as its own, the ancient spiritual gymnast-athletics and its kumbha-like deeply spiritual festival of Olympic that was celebrated to honour the dyauspitR^i. Lamentably the perished Hellenic civilization would be unable to reclaim the Olympic from what it has now been vulgarized and secularized into. But the Hindu civilization is still alive, so far at least, to call yogAsana its asset, happy to share with the world, but as its very own ancestral civilizational and spiritual legacy.

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