Wednesday, 6 December 2017

A Pre-Modern Jain “Light on Yoga”: The Yogapradīpa

Published in The Yoga Bridge, Winter 2018 (Vol. 18, Issue 1): p. 7 - 10

Download this article as a PDF

Five naked Digambara (‘Sky-clad’) Jain Monks Walking
Folio 7 verso from MS Indic Beta 1471.
Watercolour on paper. Image size: 27 x 12 cm.
Wellcome Library, London.

Related Posts

This piece is an adaption of a co-authored article by Jason Birch and Jacqueline Hargreaves, published on The Luminescent (17 March 2017).

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

FRIEND . patron . LOVER

♥  $1 / month
♥  $5 / month
♥ $10 / month
♥ $25 / month
♥ $50 / month

Thursday, 30 November 2017

The Cult of Durgā

Durgā killing the Buffalo Demon.
Dated 9th-10th century. Made of stone (basalt).
© The Trustees of the British Museum
(Museum No.: 1872,0701.79)

The Indian deity Durgā has been adopted by the modern yoga movement as a symbol of feminism and the embodiment of strength and power. Her heroic myth has found resonance with contemporary practitioners, so much so that it is often the inspiration for self-help guidelines and empowerment retreats. The iconic depiction of Durgā as a victorious warrior upon a lion has come to inspire an āsana in which one is meant to mimic the riding of "a lion into the great victory of [one's] life." This same article in Yoga Journal claims that Durgā may be 'invoked' during a vinyasa flow practice so as to summon "her strength" and "[...] to never doubt your own power, to stand firmly in your truth, and to call forth your fearless heart."

Durgā mounted on her lion fighting the demons.
Undated. Drawing - gouache with oxidised silver.
Wellcome Library no. 27688i

How far are these ideas from the conception of the goddess Durgā in classical India? What are the origins of the cultural narrative of this deity? Where and when did the cult of Durgā arise? What are the scriptural sources and the political significances of this deity?

Dr. Bihani Sarkar (British Academy Post-doctoral Fellow, Christ Church, Oxford) has recently published the first expansive, chronological study of the cult of Durgā. The book, Heroic Shāktism: The Cult of Durgā in Ancient Indian Kingship, provides a thorough study of the ideas and rituals of heroism in India between the 3rd and the 12th centuries CE. 
By assessing the available epigraphic, literary and scriptural sources in Sanskrit, and anthropological studies on politics and ritual, Bihani Sarkar demonstrates that the association between Indian kingship and the cult's belief-systems was an ancient one based on efforts to augment worldly power.
  • First published chronological study of the cult of Durgā
  • Up-to-date, uses recent philological research
  • Includes Sanskrit text and translations of influential works such as the Devīpurāṇa and the Durgābhaktitaraṅgiṇī
  • Wide-ranging sources, including epigraphic, literary and scriptural sources in Sanskrit, and anthropological studies
  • Contains individual case studies of important local goddesses identified with Durgā
  • Contains maps of major cult centres and genealogies of kings

Purchase online

About the Author

Bihani Sarkar undertook a D.Phil in Sanskrit at Wolfson College under the supervision of Prof. Alexis Sanderson (All Souls). After her doctorate in 2011 she was awarded a Nachwuchsinitiative Postdoctoral Fellowship by Hamburg University, Germany and then a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Oriental Institute, Oxford University in 2014. She has written on the Navarātra and its history, on dualisms in Durgā's conception in classical kāvya and on the interdependence between conceptions in Indian philosophy and aspects of Durgā's mythological depiction in the classical period. She has also written about classical Sanskrit literature, for example, about the ethics of poetic practice in 13th century Gujarat and the interplay between poetic licence and minding narrative conventions in the classical period. She is currently working on the depiction and history of the tragic in classical Sanskrit literature.


♥  $1 / month
♥  $5 / month
♥ $10 / month
♥ $25 / month
♥ $50 / month

Monday, 20 November 2017

DHANURĀSANA: Two Versions of Bow Pose

Download as a PDF

Fig. 1: Appu Sahib Patumkar performing jogh [āsana]
India (19th century). Painting, gouache on paper.
Image size: 15 x 24 cm

Wellcome Library no. 574888i

This brightly rendered 19th-century Indian painting (fig. 1) is held in the Wellcome Library Collection and is currently on display in the exhibition entitled, Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian medicine. It depicts a man performing a yogic posture (āsana) outdoors on a mat of antelope skin. The catalogue reports the rather cryptic comment, which it calls 'lettering' (possibly on the back of the painting):
Appu [?] Sahib Patumkar [?] performing jogh, awaiting inspiration preparatory to  turning [into a] devotee.
The form of the posture matches the description of an unnamed āsana (no. 51) in the prone (nyubja) section of an 18th-century yoga text called the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati. The description of this āsana is as follows:

Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati 51
hastadvayena pādadvayāgre gṛhītvā ekaikaṃ pādāṅguṣṭhaṃ karṇayoḥ spṛśet || 51 || 
Grasping the toes of the feet with both hands, [the yogin] should touch the big toes, one at a time, on the ears. 
Although the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati doesn't provide a name for this āsana, the artists of the Mysore Palace, who skilfully illustrated the chapter on āsana in the Śrītattvanidhi (19th century), borrowed the description from the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati (fig. 2) and named it the bow pose (dhanurāsana).

Fig. 2: Dhanurāsana in the Śrītattvanidhi
Sjoman 1999: 84, pl. 18
Another example of dhanurāsana from the same period occurs in the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā (18th-century). The posture is described as follows:

Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā 2.18
prasārya pādau bhuvi daṇḍarūpau karau ca pṛṣṭhaṃ dhṛtapādayugmam |
kṛtvā dhanustulyavivartitāṅgaṃ nigadyate vai dhanurāsanaṃ tat || 
Extending the legs on the ground like sticks, as well as the arms, both feet are held from behind and the body is moved like a bow. This is called bow pose.
Seeing that both legs are initially straight on the ground, the above description could be referring to a posture similar in form to the illustration in the Śrītattvanidhi and the Wellcome's painting. A beautifully rendered illustration of dhanurāsana in a manuscript of the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā (fig. 3) published in Fakire und Fakirtum im Alten und Modernen Indian (Schmidt 1908: 34, pl. 12) supports this interpretation.

Fig. 3: Dhanurāsana in the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā
 1908: 34, pl. 12

However, one wonders whether the word pṛṣṭha ('from behind') in the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā’s description is indicating that both feet are held behind the body. If this were the case, one would have to assume that the yogin initially extends both arms and legs while in a prone position, holds the feet from behind (pṛṣṭha) and moves the body like a bow by pulling both feet towards the ears. This interpretation was adopted by Yogi Ghamande in his book entitled Yogasopāna-Pūrvacatuṣka (published 1905). He quotes the verse on dhanurāsana in the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā and gives the following illustration (fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Dhanurāsana in the Yogasopāna-Purvacatuṣka
Ghamande 1905: 64 (
Āsana 34)

This form of dhanurāsana, which is a back-bending shape, is practised by most modern yoga lineages (fig. 5). It was popularised by the widely distributed book Yogāsanas authored by Swāmī Śivānanda, first published in 1934.

Fig. 5: Dhanurāsana in Śivānanda Yoga
Retrieved from the website of International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres.
It is worth noting that the earliest account of dhanurāsana is in the 15th-century Haṭhapradīpikā. 

Haṭhapradīpikā 1.27

pādāṅguṣṭhau tu pāṇibhyāṃ gṛhītvā śravaṇāvadhi |
dhanurākarṣaṇaṃ kuryād dhanurāsanam ucyate || 
Having held the big toes of both feet with both hands, one should pull [them] like a bow as far as the ears. This is called bow pose.

The Sanskrit is ambiguous enough to be understood as either of the above versions of this posture. In his commentary on the Haṭhapradīpikā called the Jyotsnā, Brahmānanda (circa mid-nineteenth century) interpreted it as follows:
gṛhītāṅguṣṭham ekaṃ pāṇiṃ prasāritaṃ kṛtvā gṛhītāṅguṣṭham itaraṃ pāṇiṃ karṇaparyantam ākuñcitaṃ kuryād ity arthaḥ ||
The meaning [of dhanurāsana is as follows:] Having extended one hand by which the big toe is held, one should draw, as far as the ear, the other hand by which the [other] big toe is held.
Brahmānanda's interpretation supports the version which is described in the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati and illustrated in both the Śrītattvanidhi and the Wellcome's painting. Yogi Ghamande (1905: 30) includes this as another version of dhanurāsana and quotes the above verse from the Haṭhapradīpikā (fig. 6). The illustration depicts a slight variation in which the big toe touches the opposite ear.

Both the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā and the Haṭhapradīpikā were important sources in the revival of postural yoga in twentieth-century India. Therefore, it is possible that the ambiguities in their Sanskrit descriptions of dhanurāsana are responsible for the popular (mis)interpretation of this āsana as a back-bending shape in modern yoga.

Fig. 6: Another version of Dhanurāsana in the Yogasopāna-Purvacatuṣka
Ghamande 1905: 30 (Āsana 8)

Thank you to Mark Singleton for providing the images from the Yogasopāna-Pūrvacatuṣka.


Ghamande, Yogi. 1905. Yogasopāna-Pūrvacatuṣka. Bombay: Janardan Mahadev Gurjar, Niranayasagar Press.

Śivānanda, Swāmī. 1993. Yoga Asanas. Sivanandanagar, India: Devine Life Society.

Schmidt, Richard. 1908. Fakire und Fakirtum im alten und modernen Indian: Yoga-Lehre und Yoga-Praxis nach den indischen Originalquellen dargestellt. Berlin: Hermann Barsdorf.

Sjoman, Norman E. and Kṛṣṇarāja Vaḍeyara. 1999. The Yoga tradition of the Mysore Palace. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

Download as a PDF

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

FRIEND . patron . LOVER

♥  $1 / month
♥  $5 / month
♥ $10 / month
♥ $25 / month
♥ $50 / month

Friday, 6 October 2017

The Āsana That Produces Tapas (and Misunderstandings!)

Download this article as a PDF

Haṭhayoga texts rarely mention tapas (asceticism). When they do, they usually define it as fasting or, in the case of the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati, 'doing one's own religious duty' (svadharmācaraṇa). The techniques of self-mortification that have made Indian ascetics famous, such as standing on one leg for twelve years, lying on a bed of nails and sitting amidst cow dung fires, were not incorporated into systems of Haṭhayoga and some texts, such as the Haṭhapradīpikā, explicitly reject any practice that afflicts the body (kāyakleśa).

However, an eighteenth-century yoga text named the Jogapradīpyakā, which was inspired by Pātañjalayoga and the Haṭhapradīpikā, is somewhat of an exception insofar as it describes a posture that is an act of asceticism (tapas), according to its name tapakār āsan. This work, which does not call its yoga haṭhayoga, is written in Braj Bhāṣā, an old form of Hindī, and was probably composed in Rājasthān. It describes tapakār āsan as follows:
First, one should set up a frame [for a swing]. Let a rope hang in the middle of it. Take the rope in between both arms and place the right shoulder on it. One should extend both legs in the direction of the sky and hold the whole body in the middle of the rope. One [rope] is at the back [of the body] and one at the front. One should keep the two ropes this way; grasp the rope with the two feet [in such a way that] the shoulder and hands remain on the rope. Then, take both hands behind and fix [them] in the following clever way; grasp the wrist of the right hand by the left hand [and vice versa1]. Do not touch the hands with the body. Fix the gaze just on the trikuṭī (i.e., confluence of three nāḍīs at the middle of the brows). He who is in a body should practise this āsana. [If he does that,] O Jayatarāma, the body of this man becomes pure.2
It seems that the yogin has his body turned upside down (i.e., legs pointing towards the sky), as in the Haṭhayogic mudrā called viparītakaraṇī. However, in tapakār āsan, the yogin places his right shoulder on a piece of hanging rope to launch himself into the inverted position. He then secures his body upside down by holding the rope with his feet.

Interestingly, the beginning of the description of tapakār āsan refers to a frame (hiṇḍolan), from the centre of which the rope is suspended. Unfortunately, the text gives no details and one might wonder how such a frame was constructed. A photo of an 'Urdhamukhi' ('one whose face is downwards') was reproduced in John Campell Oman's The Mystics, Ascetics, and Saints of India (1905: 46).3 This practice appears to be very similar to tapakār āsan because it includes the use of a frame and a rope hanging from its centre.

'An Urdhamukhi Sadhu'
Oman 1905: 46.

Tapakār āsan is depicted in an undated illustrated manuscript (perhaps, late eighteenth or early nineteenth-century) that colourfully represents the āsanas and mudrās of the Jogapradīpyakā. This manuscript is held in the British Library (Add. 24099) and its illustrations of eighty-four āsanas have been published by Gudrun Bühnemann (2007). In this work, the artist depicts the yogin in tapakār āsan suspended from a tree branch, which is another plausible way of executing this practice.

Tapakār āsan of the Jogapradīpyakā
Bühnemann 2007: 51.

It is clear that tapakār āsan is not viparītakaraṇī in the Jogapradīpyakā. The practice of viparītakaraṇī (viparitikaran in Braj) is taught in the section on mudrā(verses 561-71) and it resembles the shoulderstand of modern yoga in which the yogin's head and shoulders remain on the ground, while the legs are lifted into the air.

Another illustrated āsana manual called the Yogāsanamālā includes most of the āsanas found in the Jogapradīpyakā and was probably composed in Rājasthān in the eighteenth-century. Therefore, one would expect to find tapakār āsan depicted in it. However, there is no clear representation of this āsana in the Yogāsanamālā. Instead, one finds towards the end of the text a posture called tipakār āsan, which appears to be a corruption of tapakār āsan. Nonetheless, it is difficult to see how the illustration, which seems to represent the side splits, might be related to the description of tapakār āsan in the Jogapradīpyakā, because it does not resemble an inversion in any way nor are ropes or a frame included.

Tipakār āsan of the Yogāsanamālā
Ms. R635Y8 folio 105 recto.

The Yogāsanamālā provides no textual description of tipakār āsan. One wonders whether it is a different āsana altogether to the tapakār āsan in the Jogapradīpyakā or whether it was a mistaken interpretation of the Jogapradīpyakā’s description. It should be noted that descriptions of āsanas can be the most difficult material in yoga texts to understand. The challenge of this type of work can be seen in the illustration of the Jogapradīpyakā's tapakār āsan in the Encyclopaedia of Traditional Asanas (2013: 315). Here, the practitioner of tapakār āsan isn’t inverted, but suspended in a horizontal position with the ropes around the feet and shoulders. The ambiguity in the Braj Bhāṣā description might account for this type of misinterpretation.

Tapakāra-āsana(i) in the Encyclopaedia of Traditional Asanas
Gharote, 2013: 315.


1 The syntax suggests that this action is done the other way as well.

2 Jogapradīpyakā 179-183 (āsana 34)
atha tapakāra āsana ||
prathama hiṇḍolana khaḍā karāvai, tāke madhya rāsi laṭakāve |
dou bāṃha vici rāsi su āneṃ, dachina kandha tāsa pari ṭhāneṃ ||179||
dou pada nabha disi pasārai, rasī madhya saba tana ko dhārai |
yeka pada eka udara hī disā, aise vidhi rākhai dou rasā ||180||
dou pada soṃ rasī ju gahe, kāndhā pāṇi rasī pari rahe |
puni dou kara pācheṃ āneṃ, tinakī jugati asī vindhi ṭhāne ||181||
dachina kara ko pahoco joī vāma hasta so pakarai soī |
tana soṃ hasta lagāve nāhī, diṣṭi sthāpe trikuṭī māṃhī ||182||
dohā – so jo hoya sarīra meṃ, āsana sādhe yeha |
jayatarāma tā purakha kī nṛmala hove deha ||183||
iti tapakāra āsana ||
179a hiṇḍolana (a swing) appears to be a variant spelling of hiṇḍola, hiṇḍolā or hiṇḍolanā. In this case, it seems to mean the frame that supports the rope.
179a khaḍā ] conj. Nirājan Kafle : kharo Ed.
179b rāsi (rope) appears to be a variant spelling of rassī or rassā.
181d jugati appears to be a variant spelling of jukti.
181d vidhi ] emend. : vindhi Ed.182a pahoco (wrist) appears to be an alternative spelling for pahuñcā.
I would like to thank James Mallinson and Nirajan Kafle for their valuable comments on this passage. This translation will appear in a future article entitled “Some Observations on the History of Haṭha- and Rājayoga from the Sixteenth to Eighteenth Century with a focus on inversions (viparītakaraṇī).”

3 I would like to thank James Mallinson for bringing my attention to this photographic plate of 'An Urdhamukhi Sadhu'.


Primary Sources

Jogapradīpyakā of Jayatarāma, ed. Maheśānanda, Śarmā, Sahāya and Bodhe. Lonavla: Kaivalyadhama Śrīmanmādhava Yogamandira Samiti, 2006.

Yogāsanamālā, photocopy (R635Y8) at the library of the Kaivalyadhama Yoga Institute, Lonavla. Several stamps indicate the Rajasthān Prācya Vidyā Pratiṣṭhān, Bīkāner.

Secondary Sources

Bühnemann, Gudrun. 2007.
Eighty-four Asanas in Yoga: A Survey of Traditions (with Illustrations). New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Gharote, M. L., Jha, V. K., Devnath, P., Sakhalkar, S. B., & Lonavla Yoga Institute. 2013.
Encyclopaedia of Traditional Asanas. Lonavla, Pune: Lonavla Yoga Institute.

Oman, John Campell. 1905.
The Mystics, Ascetics, and Saints of India. London: T Fisher Unwin.

Download this article as a PDF

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


♥  $1 / month
♥  $5 / month
♥ $10 / month
♥ $25 / month
♥ $50 / month

Saturday, 19 August 2017

How to succeed at Āsana: A seventeenth-century Marginal Note


Marginal note on folio 58v. of the Yogacintāmaṇi
Ms. No. 3537, Scindia Oriental Institute, Ujjain

I'm currently translating a section on āsanas from a unique manuscript that can be accurately dated to Thursday, 5th June, 1659 CE by a scribal comment.1 At first sight, this manuscript appears to be a copy of the Yogacintāmaṇi ("A Gem of Thoughts on Yoga"), which is a very large compendium on yoga composed by Śivānandasarasvatī in the early seventeenth century. However, it is, in fact, a unique work because, in addition to the original text of the Yogacintāmaṇi, there is supplementary material on āsana, as well as numerous marginal notes, that have been added by an unknown scribe. 

The additional material in this particular manuscript includes five unprecedented āsanas that are attributed to a Lakṣmaṇasvarayogī. In contrast to attributions to mythical figures, such as Vasiṣṭha and Matsyendra, this reference to Lakṣmaṇasvarayogī may be the earliest textual record of a historical person who was known for teaching particular āsanas. 

At the lower edge of folio 58 verso, in a marginal note added to the text on āsana, the following dietary advice is given for the mastery of all āsanas: 
Lakṣmaṇasvarayogī says, "By eating rock salt (saindhava) and pepper (marīca), success arises in all the āsanas, and not by [eating other types of] salt (lavaṇa)." Because of this, itching disappears.2
Lakṣmaṇasvarayogī appears to be recommending a specific type of salt called saindhava as opposed to salt (lavaṇa) more generally understood. In Sanskrit literature, the terms saindhava and lavaṇa can be used as synonyms. However, in some texts of Āyurveda and Rasāyana, lavaṇa refers to salt of which there are various types including saindhava. For example, in the Rasārṇava, five types of salt (lavaṇa) are listed as sāmudra, saindhava, cūlikālavaṇa, sauvarcala and kāca.3

A fifteenth to sixteenth-century compendium called the Rājanighaṇṭu, which gives the names and properties of medicinal substances, states the following about saindhava:
It has nine names: saindhava, śītaśiva, nādeya, sindhuja, śiva, śuddha, śivātmaja, pathya and maṇimantha. Saindhava is a salt that is aphrodisiacal, good for the eyes, stimulates appetite, mitigates the three humours (doṣa), purifies(?), and cures ulceration and constipation.4
Therefore, Lakṣmaṇasvarayogī seems to be recommending saindhava, rather than salt in general, for  achieving success in all āsanas.

The comment 'because of this, itching disappears', which follows Lakṣmaṇasvarayogī's advice, is even more intriguing. It appears to be the scribe's opinion. The referent of the pronoun (i.e., 'this') is not entirely clear. Is itching (kaṇḍū) cured by eating rock salt and pepper or by successfully accomplishing all āsanas? 

Āyurvedic texts, such as the Aṣṭāṅgahṛdayasūtra, assert that itching is a sign of aggravated phlegm (kaphadoṣa).5 If one believes that saindhava mitigates doṣas, as the Rājanighaṇṭu states above, then it should cure itching. Nonetheless, the scribe may have been thinking of āsanas that are said to mitigate doṣas. For example, Sundaradeva, the author of the Haṭhasaṅketacandrikā, who was an āyurvedic physician (vaidya), claimed that bhadrāsana (a type of seated posture) can cure diseases caused by kapha.6

So it seems, if one has an itch, some saindhava at hand and the ability to do bhadrāsana, one should be able to self-medicate quite effectively. Then, just add pepper for success in all āsanas!

Schmidt, Richard. 1908.
Fakire und Fakirtum im alten und modernen Indien: Yoga-Lehre und Yoga-Praxis nach den indischen Originalquellen.
Berlin: Hermann Barsdorf.


1 At the international conference, Yoga in Transformation, held at the University of Vienna in 2013, I presented this manuscript as evidence for the proliferation of āsana in yoga texts that were composed between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Download this conference paper here. These findings will be published as a forthcoming article in the conference proceedings, Yoga in Transformation (2018).

2 Yogacintāmaṇi, ms. No. 3537, Scindia Oriental Institute, Ujjain, f. 58v (lower margin)
saindhavamarīcabhakṣaṇena sarvāsanasiddhir na tu lavaṇeneti lakṣmaṇasvarayogī || tena kaṇḍūnāśaḥ [||]

3 Rasārṇava 5.32
sāmudraṃ saindhavaṃ caiva cūlikālavaṇaṃ tathā | 
sauvarcalaṃ ca kācaṃ ca lavaṇāḥ pañca kīrtitāḥ || 

4 Rājanighaṇṭu 5.88-90
saindhavaṃ syāc chītaśivaṃ nādeyaṃ sindhujaṃ śivam | 
śuddhaṃ śivātmajaṃ pathyaṃ maṇimanthaṃ navābhidham ||5.88|| 
saindhavaṃ lavaṇaṃ vṛṣyaṃ cakṣuṣyaṃ rucidīpanam | 
tridoṣaśamanaṃ pūtaṃ vraṇadoṣavibandhajit ||5.89|| 

5 See the Aṣṭāṅgahṛdayasūtra, Sūtrasthāna, 12.53-54
śleṣmaṇaḥ snehakāṭhinyakaṇḍūśītatvagauravam |
bandhopalepastaimityaśophāpaktyatinidratāḥ || 53 ||
varṇaḥ śveto rasau svādulavaṇau cirakāritā |
ity aśeṣāmayavyāpi yad uktaṃ doṣalakṣaṇam || 54 |

6 Haṭhasaṅketacandrikā, ms. No. R3239 (transcript), Government Oriental Manuscript Library, p. 32.
atha kaphavātaroge bhadrāsanam ("Now, in the case of a disease caused by phlegm (kapha) or wind (vāta), bhadrāsana [is taught]").

The complete āsana section of this unique manuscript of the Yogacintāmaṇi will be published as part of the Haṭha Yoga Project.