From Guru to God: Yogic prowess and places of practice
in Early-Medieval India
By Tamara I. Sears
One of the best known depictions of yoga’s power is found in a relief sculpted across the vast façade of an unfinished rock-cut temple in the southern Indian village of Mamallapuram, not far from the shores of the Bay of Bengal, facing toward the sea (fig. 1). Created in the seventh century during the reign of the Pallava kings, the monument has long presented a striking visual enigma, as its imagery suggests more than one story. Some have interpreted it as representing the descent of the Ganges River through the intervention of King Bhagiratha, who became an ascetic and performed penance to obtain Shiva’s assistance in bringing the river goddess Ganga down from the heavens so that he could appropriately perform the final rites for his dead ancestors. Others have argued that it better fits an account from the Mahabharata in which the Pandava Prince Arjuna wandered the wilderness as an ascetic, seeking Shiva in order to acquire a magical weapon that would help him recover his lost kingdom. What is striking is not the differences in the two narratives but their primary points of convergence on the level of composition and theme.
Both narratives center on a king or prince who becomes a sage in order to ultimately fulfill his worldly duties. Through the performance of bodily austerities and meditation, he is able to directly encounter the supreme god, who, appeased by the sage’s yogic prowess, grants him a boon that redresses past wrongs and restores cosmic order. In both interpretations, the key moment can be located in the relief’s upper left quadrant, where we encounter a penitent sage performing a rigorous yogic practice. The iconography of the sage’s stance has been interpreted as representing either the penance of gazing into the sun (suryopasthana tapas) or the penance of the five fires (panchagni tapas) performed to conquer passion, anger, greed, attachment, and jealousy. Here, the external iconography evokes the internal process: the sage’s eyes and arms are raised to the sky as he stares up into sun. Once he is king, the sage becomes a true ascetic, marked as such by such iconographic features as his long beard and matted locks of hair (jata), the noticeable gauntness of his body, and his simple attire, consisting only of a loincloth and sacred thread (yajnopavita). Besides him stands none other than the god Shiva, fully manifest in anthropomorphic form, marked as both a deity, possessing four arms and a sacred trident, and a powerful ascetic, sporting similarly matted locks of hair. The efficaciousness of the practice is indicated most clearly by the iconography of Shiva’s response: the supreme god’s lower left hand extends outward in a boon-granting gesture (varada mudra), communicating to the viewer that the sage has been successful in procuring his desired favor.
Extract from the book -
Yoga: The Art of Transformation
By Debra Diamond and Others
Published by the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington - 2013