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Under the Spell of Yoga

San Antonio Museum of Art
‘Yogini’; sandstone statue, Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh, first half of the eleventh century. William Dalrymple writes that ‘in ancient India yoginis were understood to be the terrifying female embodiments of yogic powers who could travel through the sky and be summoned up by devotees who dared to attempt harnessing their powers.’

This sense of shifting meaning and elusiveness of definition, around both the concept and practice of yoga over two millennia, is a difficulty that the exhibition embraces with creativity. As you enter, the first hall has on one side a white marble image of ice-calm tranquillity: a Jain Jina, or Victorious One, sitting in a lotus position, lost in peaceful meditation. Opposite it, however, is a no less fabulous image that is all sound and fury: a full-breasted and slim-waisted Hindu yogini, arriving on the back of an owl, armed to the teeth, brandishing a sword and a shield, while making a piercing wolf whistle: not for nothing does her name translate as “She Who Makes a Loud Noise.”

Today in modern India a yogini is understood to be a female yogi, a seeker after peace and enlightenment. But in ancient India yoginis were understood to be the terrifying female embodiments of yogic powers who could travel through the sky and be summoned up by devotees who dared to attempt harnessing their powers. They were also the policewomen of the yogic world, who Adinatha says will quickly eat up “he who makes this supreme text public to all…at the order of Síva.”

This dual world of the yogi is there throughout the show: for every ivory of a gentle Buddha mortifying his flesh and starving himself in the quest for inner peace and Enlightenment there are other more unsettling images of wild-looking yogis and the fearsome blood-drinking deities they sought to worship sitting amid the smoking pyres of cremation grounds, both draped with skull necklaces and brandishing weapons as they sit astride headless corpses. Some deities bring this duality into a strange union: one Himalayan image of the God Bhairava in yogic attire is wearing a belt of human arm and has a necklace, bracelets, anklets, and earrings all made of human skulls—but he is smiling as sweetly and alluringly as a baby Krishna. As one of the contributors to the catalog, David Gordon White, asks: “If these be yogis, then what is yoga?” It is something that the contributors to the exhibition catalog have clearly agreed to disagree on.

Debra Diamond, the curator of this most striking show, had as her last major project an equally wonderful exhibition of Jodhpur painting entitled “Garden and Cosmos.” That exhibition told the story of the Naths, a sect of wandering ash-smeared followers of Shiva mystics who codified hatha yoga in the twelfth century, claiming that their practices gave them superhuman powers: the ability to fly, to see into the future, and to hear and see over great distances.

By 1803, the Nath yogis were nearing the height of their influence across northern India, when they became the effective rulers of the desert kingdom of Jodhpur, advising their faithful disciple, Maharajah Man Singh, on all matters of state. In an extraordinary coup d’état, one of the greatest kingdoms in pre-colonial India had fallen into the hands of an order of esoteric yogis.

It didn’t take long before the Naths began flexing their muscles and abusing their new power: they kidnapped women and forcibly inducted men into their order, seizing property for themselves. A folk song from this period expressed the growing swell of disgust: “Nathji,” begins the chorus, “your glance is poison.” Nevertheless, it did represent a brief but astonishing golden age in the history of Rajasthani painting, and has provided some of the highlights of both the “Garden and Cosmos” show and this exhibition.

As the story of the Naths shows, yogis sometimes took very different forms from the peaceful sages the West has loved to imagine as archetypically Indian since Gandhi succeeded in presenting Hinduism to the world as the religion of ahimsa, nonviolence. This complexity is something several interesting books have recently grappled with.

In 2009 David Gordon White, a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, published a provocative and controversial book entitled Sinister Yogis, which took the story further. White emphasized that there is a whole tradition in South Asia of violent, frightening, and even cannibalistic yogis, many of whom had a developed taste for kidnapping children and human sacrifice. The same rites that could be used to remove the individual from his body and join it with the formless Absolute were also believed to give yogis the ability to enter another’s body, or to shift shape at will.

White made the case that medieval yogis were primarily interested in occult techniques to project the self outward in order to overcome death, enter other bodies, and effect all manner of sinister wizardry. As White shows in a book full of entertaining stories of yogis behaving badly, there is in fact a whole body of South Asian literature and folk tales where yogis are not peaceful meditators but instead archetypically wicked sorcerers.

White may well overstate his case, and James Mallinson, another of Debra Diamond’s contributors, has written critically of his work, stating that he “leaves no room for nuance,…in particular the elephant in his room—the huge body of Indic texts written over the last two thousand years which teach a meditation-based yoga.” This may well be the case, but there can be no disputing that many medieval yogis were as much in search of occult powers as cosmic self-discovery. Indeed the fascinating texts that Mallinson has himself translated show this very clearly.

Yogis seem to have gone particularly out of control during the eighteenth-century anarchy between the fall of the Mughals and the rise of the British. This is a subject explored by William Pinch in his brilliant 2006 study of the militant yogis of the period, Warrior Ascetics and Indian Empires.

European travelers of the period frequently describe yogis who are “skilled cut-throats” and professional killers. “Some of them carry a stick with a ring of iron at the base,” wrote Ludovico di Varthema of Bologna in 1508. “Others carry certain iron diskes which cut all round like razors, and they throw these with a sling when they wish to injure any person.” A century later the French jewel merchant Jean Baptiste Tavernier was describing large bodies of holy men on the march, “well armed, the majority with bows and arrows, some with muskets, and the remainder with short pikes.” By the Maratha wars of the early nineteenth century, the Anglo-Indian mercenary James Skinner was fighting alongside “10 thousand Gossains called Naggas with Rockets, and about 150 pieces of cannon.”

Pinch focuses in particular on the well-attested case of Anupgiri, a Shaivite ascetic and mercenary warlord who led a large army of killer yogis and fought with both modern weaponry and spells: Mahadji Shinde, a rival leader of the time, was convinced that Anupgiri had attacked him with a painful case of boils through his “magical arts.” Nor was Anupgiri necessarily a champion of Hindu interests: “Far from thinking of themselves as the last line of defense against foreign invaders, armed ascetics in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth century served any and all paymasters,” writes Pinch. Though he sometimes fought with the Hindu Marathas, at other times Anupgiri worked for the Mughal emperor.

Indeed in 1803 his last act, as Pinch shows, “was to enable the Maratha defeat at the hands of the British…and, thereby, the British capture of Delhi, an event that catapaulted the Hon’ble [East India] Company into the role of paramount power in southern Asia—and ultimately the world.”

Through this complex jungle of rival interpretation, Debra Diamond leads the visitor to “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” with the steady tread of the umpire.

The show opens with images of wizened ancient ascetics: Gandharan Buddhist images of lean dreadlocked sages found in the tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and a beautiful Kashmiri ivory of the fasting Buddha. A room is devoted to a series of fabulously voluptuous flying yoginis occupying that peculiarly Indian space between the sacred, the sensual, and the utterly frightful.

Ironically it is only with the coming of the Muslims, in Indo-Islamic art, that we see for the first time what a modern practioner of yoga would recognize as an asana. But perhaps it is the yogis’ post-Mughal glory days of the eighteenth century, once thought to be a period of artistic decadence, that gives this show its highlights. The period of Nath power in Jodhpur, and Nath prominence in nearby Jaipur, led to attempts by artists in both cities to explain their understanding of the world in what are perhaps the supreme examples of the art of yoga: two vast, awesome purple-gold images of the Cosmic Body, with the sun on one eye, the moon on the other, including a representation of the relationship of the macrocosmic to the individual entitled Equivalence of the Self and the Universe.

It was under the guidance of these power-hungry Nath gurus that painting in Rajasthan transformed itself into something utterly remarkable, reaching heights of Rothko-like abstraction and mystical strangeness that predate by more than a hundred years many of the experiments of twentieth-century European and American art. Cosmic oceans of gold hint at states of heightened mystical consciousness; Mondrian-like fields of color are divided by frames of pure red; esoteric ideas take wing in sublime forms of fabulous, dreamlike intensity. Cosmic oceans lap against figures incarnating divine principles such as Purusha (Consciousness) and Prakriti (Matter). These are images that do not tell religious stories as much as attempt to explain the great questions of human existence: What are we doing here? How did we come? Who created us? Where are we going?

The penultimate room of the show examines the story of how yoga moved west between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. From the black-and-white photographs of early British Orientalists to 1940s circus posters for “Koringa—THE ONLY FEMALE fakir IN THE WORLD,” the show ends by telling a story of cultural misunderstanding, as the complex and sometimes contradictory body of yogic knowledge was cleaned up and rebranded as a vogueish health trend open to all—men and women, Indian and foreigner—to be marketed to a sometimes credulous Western public through celebrity yoga faddists beginning with Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s. It was only at this very late point, under the influence of Swedish body building, gymnastics, and British military drill, that it became a method of fitness: almost all pre-twentieth-century Indian yoga involved staying for a prolonged period in one asana, not moving rapidly from one to another in a yogic workout.

Today it is estimated that around 20 million Americans have performed yoga. It is a fitting end to the show, therefore, that remarkable 1940s black-and-white film footage of Krishnamachrya and his youthful disciple Iyengar, inventor and exporter of Iyengar yoga, is shown in a room where visitors are encouraged to bring their yoga mats and perform their asanas within the exhibition space. They became part of one of the most stunning shows of Indian art ever to be displayed in the US.

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