Yogic Identities: Tradition and Transformation
By James Mallinson
The earliest textual descriptions of yogic techniques date to the last few centuries BCE and show their practitioners to have been ascetics who had turned their backs on ordinary society. These renouncers have been considered practitioners of yoga par excellence throughout Indian history. While ascetics, including some seated in meditative yoga postures, have been represented in Indian statuary since that early period, the first detailed depictions of Indian ascetics are not found until circa 1560 in paintings produced under the patronage of Mughal Emperor Akbar (reigned 1556–1605) and his successors. These wonderfully naturalistic and precise images illuminate not only Mughal manuscripts and albums but also our understanding of the history of yogis and their sects. Scholars have argued for these paintings’ value as historical documents; their usefulness in establishing the history of Indian ascetic orders bears this out. The consistency of their depictions and the astonishing detail they reveal allow us to flesh out—and, sometimes, rewrite—the incomplete and partisan history that can be surmised from Sanskrit and vernacular texts, travelers’ reports, hagiography, and ethnography.
The Two Yogi Traditions: Ascetic Saṃnyāsīs and Tantric Nāths:
The eleventh to the fifteenth centuries saw the composition of a corpus of Sanskrit works that teach the haṭha method of yoga, which places the greatest emphasis on physical practices.9 The techniques of haṭha yoga—some of which were probably part of ascetic practice for more than a thousand years before they were taught in texts—became integral to subsequent formulations of yoga, including orthodox ones such as those found in the later “Yoga Upaniṣads.” They form the basis of much of the yoga practiced around the world today.
Within the texts of the haṭha yoga corpus, we can identify two yogic paradigms. One, the older, is the tradition of the yogis described in our earliest sources and is linked to the physical practices of tapas—asceticism. It uses a variety of physical methods to control the breath and to arrest the downward flow and loss of semen, which is said to be the essence of life. Control of breath and semen leads to control of the mind, as well as perfect health and longevity. In classical formulations of haṭhayoga—such as that found in the most influential text on the subject, the fifteenth-century Haṭhapradīpikā—a second paradigm, that of Tantric yoga, is superimposed onto this ancient ascetic method. As taught in its root texts, which were composed between the fifth and tenth centuries CE, Tantric yoga consists for the most part of meditations on a series of progressively more subtle elements, a progression represented in some Kaula Tantric texts from the tenth century onward by the visualization of the ascent of the serpent goddess Kuṇḍalinī through a series of wheels (cakras) or lotuses (padmas) located along the body’s central column.
The ultimate goal of both of these yogic paradigms is liberation (mokṣa), which can be achieved while alive. Along the way various supernatural abilities or siddhis are said to arise, ranging from mundane benefits such as overcoming hunger and thirst through the power of flight to the attainment of an immortal body. In the ancient ascetic tradition, these siddhis are ultimately impediments to the final goal; in the Tantric tradition, they may be ends in themselves.