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Under the Spell of Yoga

Yoga: The Art of Transformation

an exhibition at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, Washington, D.C., October 19, 2013–January 26, 2014; the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, February 22–May 18, 2014; and the Cleveland Museum of Art, June 22–September 7, 2014
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Debra Diamond
Freer Gallery of Art/Arthur M. Sackler Gallery/Smithsonian Books, 328 pp., $55.00

Sinister Yogis

by David Gordon White
University of Chicago Press, 352 pp., $29.00 (paper)
dalrymple_1-030614.jpg
Chester Beatty Library, Dublin
Detail of ‘The Feast of the Yogis,’ from the Hindi Sufi romance Mrigavati, Allahabad, 1603–1604

Around 1600, a dramatic shift took place in Mughal art. The Mughal emperors of India were the most powerful monarchs of their day—at the beginning of the seventeenth century, they ruled over a hundred million subjects, five times the number administered by their only rivals, the Ottomans. Much of the painting that took place in the ateliers of the first Mughal emperors was effectively dynastic propaganda, and gloried in the Mughals’ pomp and prestige. Illustrated copies were produced of the diaries of Babur, the conqueror who first brought the Muslim dynasty of the Mughal emperors to India in 1526, as well as exquisite paintings illustrating every significant episode in the biography of his grandson, Akbar.

Then, quite suddenly, at this moment of imperial climax, a young Hindu khanazad (or “palace-born”) prodigy named Govardhan began painting images of a sort that had never been seen before in Mughal art. They were not pictures of battles or court receptions. Instead they were closely observed portraits of holy men performing yogic asanas or exercises that aimed to focus the mind and achieve spiritual liberation and transcendence. The results of Govardhan’s experiments in painting—along with a superbly curated selection of several hundred other images from the history of yoga—were recently on view in “Yoga: The Art of Transformation,” a remarkable exhibition at the Freer and Sackler galleries in Washington, D.C., which will travel next to San Francisco and Cleveland.

Govardhan’s images of holy men are works of penetrating intensity. They use the same skills of characterization and portraiture that the artist had learned from his close study of the Renaissance gospel books brought to India by the Jesuits. These portraits are as beautifully drawn and observed as anything Govardhan had painted before, with carefully stippled faces and the artist’s characteristically precise delineation of the subjects’ noses and cheekbones. But they are no longer the familiar courtiers or princes, seekers of power or pleasure. Instead these humble sadhus outside their huts, hair matted, limbs entwined, are engaged in a much harder quest: the long and arduous journey toward enlightenment.

The reasons behind this radical shift lay partly in geography and partly in politics. In the early months of the seventeenth century Crown Prince Salim, the future emperor Jahangir, had rebelled against his father Akbar. While the emperor was distracted by his attack on the Sultanate of Ahmadnagar to the south, Salim came close to setting himself up as a rival emperor in the north, making his own appointments and running his own imperial administration. It was exactly during the period of Salim’s rebellion, from early 1600 to November 1604, that Govardhan’s art underwent its transformation.

The place Salim chose as his power base was Allahabad, previously known as Prayag. This was one of the most sacred places in India for Hindus: the point at which the two holy rivers of the north, the Yamuna and the Ganga, come into confluence. Prayag has always been a place of congregation for holy men, and in the seventeenth century it seems as if the great ascetic gathering we know today as the Kumbh Mela took place there as regularly as every five years, not on the current twelve-year cycle.

The Kumbh remains even today one of the most extraordinary sights on earth. Overnight a provincial town is transformed into a heaving ascetic metropolis, larger than London or New York. Hundreds of thousands of sadhus and yogis of the rival Hindu orders—Shaivite seekers with their tridents, Vaishnavite Ramanandis, and Nath yogis—pour in, with their dreadlocked hair and wild, often unpredictable behavior. Some are freelance wanderers, moving from town to town; others live ordered monastic lives in ashrams, dividing their day according to strict rules and performing severe penances. Most hypnotic of all are the unruly and aggressive naga sadhus: the naked, ash-smeared warrior ascetics who have always formed the shock troops of Hinduism.

There was nothing new about Prince Salim’s interest in this ascetic world. Far from being excluded by the Mughals, Hindu mysticism and its affinities with the austerities of Sufism had been a focus of Islamic interest in India since before the first Muslim conquests of the twelfth century. Half a millennium earlier, the Central Asian Muslim scholar Alberuni, who died in 1048, was the great pioneer of Hindu-Muslim interaction, and translated into Persian what are often regarded as the foundational texts of yoga, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (second to fourth century AD). Two hundred years later, one of the most important Indian Sufis, Mu’in al-Din Chisti (died 1236), was credited with the authorship of an encyclopedic work entitled Treatise on Nature of Yoga, which again stressed the compatibility of Islamic and Hindu mysticism.

By the sixteenth century, yoga and the secret bodies of knowledge that were associated with it had become part of the science of government in Indo-Islamic courts. The interest was as much practical as mystical: many sultans were convinced that extraordinary powers could be accessed through the practices of yogis.

It was during the reigns of the enquiring emperor Akbar and his son Salim that this interest took on a new urgency. Akbar had the Yoga Sutras and several other ancient Hindu texts on asceticism translated or summarized. His biographer Abul Fazl wrote with wonder about yogic asanas, remarking that “the writer of these pages, who has witnessed many of these postures, has gazed in astonishment, wondering how any human being could subject his muscles, tendons and bones in this manner to his will.”

In addition, a new work, Bahr al-Hayat (The Ocean of Life), was composed around 1550 by Muhammad Gwaliyari, a prominent Sufi shaykh who was close to Akbar’s court. He wanted his disciples to learn hatha yogic practices.* In the form that Salim commissioned it, The Ocean of Life constitutes the earliest-known treatise to contain a systematic series of images of yoga postures. Twenty-two different asanas—almost all seated postures designed to aid meditation—are examined. It is clear from the images that the artists that Salim had lured to Allahabad, Govardhan preeminent among them, must have been sent down to the confluence of the holy rivers to talk to and interact directly with yogis engaged in their austerities below the palace walls.

A portrait survives of Govardhan at this time: it shows an eager, sharp-eyed, and intelligent young man with raffishly long sideburns and a carefully trimmed mustache, dressed in an immaculate white robe and dashing black cape. Govardhan knew he was the crown prince’s particular protégé, and in years to come proudly referred to himself as “the servant of Shah Jahangir.” How this dapper young courtier got on with the dreadlocked holy men is not recorded; but the result is a revelation, perhaps the most intense artistic interaction that survives between Hindu and Islamic worlds. We are now far away from the idealized world of court art. Instead the illustrations show ash-smeared holy men engaged in their yogic austerities outside their huts with an almost photojournalistic accuracy.

The images are lightly colored, with translucent washes, showing every detail of the yogis’ daily lives, from their postures and pensive expressions through the form of their huts down to their pet dogs and smallest possessions: their horn whistles, staffs, gourds, and ewers, even the antelope skins they use for yoga mats. Most intriguing of all is the image of one holy man whose body may be drawn from life but whose face is quite clearly borrowed from that of Christ in some European gospel book.

So it was that seventeenth-century Allahabad/Prayag became the confluence not just of two holy rivers but of several traditions of sacred art in a way that today might be considered implausible to anyone who takes at face value the idea of a clash of civilizations: a Hindu artist painting the first-ever systematic set of illustrations of yogic asana positions, while working for a Muslim patron, and borrowing for the yogis the features of Jesus Christ.

The yogic traditions that so intrigued these Islamic rulers, and that today represent the most successful Indian export into the global marketplace of spirituality, have their origins in the deepest roots of Indian civilization, predating by two thousand years the revelations of the Koran. The Sanskrit word yoga means “union” and is etymologically linked to the English word “yoke.” Its earliest occurrence in the Rig Veda, which dates from the second millennium BCE when both the Pyramids and Stonehenge were still in use, links the word to the rig with which war chariots were yoked to horses; by the early centuries AD the same word is being used to convey the idea of the body and the senses being yoked and reined in so as to move toward the Absolute.

It is possible that the oldest image in Indian art shows a yogi in meditation: one of the Indus Valley seals dug up at Mohenjo Daro by Sir John Marshall in 1931, dating from between 2600 and 1900 BC, shows a cross-legged figure that Marshall interpreted to be Shiva as Mahayogi and Lord of the Beasts. This interpretation has been questioned by some scholars, but the Vedas, which date from maybe five hundred years after the Indus Valley seal, already contain references to flying long-haired sages that indicate even then the presence of a mystical tradition related to the world of the yogis.

Between the third and fifth centuries BC, yogic techniques and goals spread so as to become practiced across northern India, and were eventually codified in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali that date from the fourth century AD. By that time, yoga was being used by men and women across South Asia who sought by perfecting their bodies to transcend suffering, renouncing the world and devoting themselves to breath control, meditation, and austerities. Their radical insight was to realize that they had within them the potential correctly to perceive reality and stabilize their minds and bodies through the use of esoteric yogic techniques.

The Sackler exhibition explores the visual culture of yoga in all its rich variety, aiming, according to its curator Debra Diamond, to show “yoga’s rich, protean diversity—its varied meanings for both practioners and those who encountered and interacted with them—over the last 2,500 years.” For as the exhibition makes clear, while the use of meditation, posture, and breathing techniques has been widespread in India since remote antiquity, yoga was never a unified construct and has clearly meant quite different things at different times to different people, whether Jain, Buddhist, Sufi, or Hindu.

Moreover, there has always been a clear duality visible in the objectives of the yogis. Some were focused entirely on the interior: on breathing exercises and mastery of the body as a route to self-understanding and spiritual liberation. Others, however, were clearly searching for the magical tantric powers that they believed yoga could unleash. There are hints of this tension already in the Yoga Sutras where Patanjali outlines the route to union with the Absolute, while making it clear that an accomplished yogi can perform all sorts of useful tricks in this life: flying, transmigrating, reading other people’s minds, and even defying death itself.

The Khecarividya of Adinatha, an early hatha yoga text that dates from 1400 AD, which has recently been translated into English for the first time by James Mallinson, goes further and explictly promises to give the adept magical powers and ultimately immortality. “One becomes ageless and undying in this world,” writes Adinatha, “all obstacles are destroyed, the gods are pleased and, without doubt, wrinkles and grey hair will disappear.”

This is not all:

Success in sciences such as finding buried treasure, entering subterranean realms, controlling the earth and alchemy arise for the yogis after five years…. With a body as incorruptible as diamond [he] lives for one hundred thousand years. With the strength of ten thousand elephants,…he has long-distance sight and hearing. Capable of punishing and rewarding [people], he becomes powerful.

If he so wishes he can “associate at will with great ghouls, ghosts, snakes and demons.”

The text also promises attainment of “absolutely all the magical powers that are found in the three worlds,…power over zombies…and power over male and female genies.” Finally the adept can gain “dominion over the highest gods.” It is in many ways closer to the world of Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort than to the New Agey yoga of modern Western gyms, moving across a line from the search for spiritual liberation to a quest for dark and possibly demonic powers for use in this material world.

  1. *

    “Hatha yoga”—“Forceful” or “willful” yoga performed with a set of physical exercises or asanas, designed to align and balance the body and mind. 

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