The Arts, Paths, and Myths of Yoga

By Ann Louise BardachSeptember 4, 2014

Yoga: The Art of Transformation by Debra Diamond

THE BAD NEWS is that the stunning exhibition, Yoga: The Art of Transformation, the first visual history of yoga that premiered at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery last October, will end all too soon. Unless another museum quickly leaps to its rescue and offers a new venue — which we should all fervently pray for — this extraordinary collection of South Asian art will have traveled to just three American museums (the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, and Cleveland’s Museum of Art) before being disassembled.

The good news, however, is that this sensational collection, chronicling the history of yoga, has been preserved in an equally extraordinary companion volume.

“Yoga emerged in India as a means to transcend suffering,” begins Debra Diamond, the gifted Sackler curator of the exhibition and editor of this 300-plus page edition of exquisite reproductions. On the following page, illustrating her comments, is a glorious triptych: Three Aspects of the Absolute, by the artist Bulaki, done in 1823.

"Three Aspects of the Absolute," Bulaki (1823)
Three Aspects of the Absolute, Bulaki (1823)

In the first panel, we see a sadhu sitting on the ground in meditation with a golden sky around him; in the second image, he has drifted away from any terrain anchoring him and now seems to be afloat in a golden mist; and in the third, we observe only a luminous “sea of gold” — our sadhu having entirely disappeared into enlightened “realization.”

Yoga, for which there is historical evidence as far back as 2600 BCE, has been practiced by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs. Among the innumerable showstoppers in this collection is a white marbled Jina, a Jain teacher or realized soul. In this 12th-century Rajasthani sculpture, a naked, radiant Jina is seated upon an embroidered pillow in a full lotus asana.

Jina (12th century, Rajasthan)
Jina (12th century, Rajasthan)

He sits in perfect contemplation and stillness, ideal for ensuring ahimsa — the vow against causing harm. (Devout Jains are stringently committed to nonviolence, even involving the lives of unseen insects and microorganisms.) Another jewel is an 11th-century sandstone sculpture of a fierce, full-breasted Yogini, astride an owl, from Uttar Pradesh, and 10 folios from the Bahr al-hayat (Ocean of Life), dated 1600-1604, illustrating the asanas of yoga, including one that is attributed to the ground-breaking artist Govardhan. Deservedly featured on the cover is a sumptuously painted blue Vishnu from early 19th-century Rajasthan — with the sun sitting in one eye, the moon in the other, and a soft belly that suggests an elephant — painted entirely with watercolors and gold.

Interspersed among the reproductions are the essays of seven contributors documenting the depth and breadth of yogic traditions as adapted and adopted by various cultures, religions, and ethnicities, followed by more than two dozen texts describing the cosmology, practice, and history of yoga.

Carl W. Ernst writes of early Hindu-Islamic relations, pre-dating the Mughal invasion and Empire, when the Yoga Sutras, and other Sanskrit texts, were translated into Persian by al-Biruni, around 1000 AD. The visual representations of a good deal of yoga art as we know it today came into being during the Mughals, notably under emperor Akbar (1556–1605), who established patronage, an atelier for artists, and, most crucially, his own keen interest. Indeed, it was during the golden reign of Akbar, and his son Prince Salim (who would become Emperor Jahangir), that some of the finest works of yoga art were commissioned. Among them was Govardhan’s pastoral Prince and Ascetics (1625), depicting the visit of a young prince and musician to an elderly monk, with dreadlocks draping the ground, outside his humble cell. Curiously, its elaborate gold border, featuring a half dozen yogis in various asanas, was painted by Payag, another master of the Mughal period.

There is a brief but intriguing history of the Naths by the scholar James Mallinson. The Naths are an exotic group of ascetics going back to the 9th century, whose Dasmani Naga sect famously show up by the thousands — bone-naked, dreadlocked, and ash-smeared — at the Kumbh Mela festivals. The Kumbh Melas are held every three years and attract millions of Hindus who bathe, for the most part clothed, in one of India’s sacred rivers. Every 144 years, there is Maha Kumbh Mela; the last one was in February 2013 in which an estimated 30 million Hindus plunged in for a holy swim at Triveni Sangam (in Allahabad), the meeting place of the three sacred rivers: Ganga, Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati.

Mallinson chronicles the curious history and splits between the two major Nath orders: the Dasmanis, who worship Shiva, and their rivals the Ramanandis, the largest of the ascetic orders today, who are Vaishnava and worship Rama. In deference to Rama the vastly larger number of Ramanandis never go naked but, not surprisingly, it’s those naked Naga Dasmani that get all the camera time.

Mallinson offers all manner of fascinating data such as the fact that cannabis arrived in India via the Mughal invaders in the 11th century and was introduced to ascetics via fakirs 300 years later. It was eaten, not smoked — smoking weed evidently did not become a custom until the 18th century.

David Gordon White offers an engaging history of yogic texts from the Rig Veda, the Mahabharata, to the Katha Upanishad. The latter — the revered scripture from the third century BCE — lays out a non-dualist cosmology and a discussion of “the subtle body,” the atman (the thumb-sized true soul of each individual), the nadis (the breath channels), and Brahman (the Universal Self). These are splendidly illustrated by numerous works, including one of the late 17th-century Raja Mandhata, practicing yogic breathing in a lotus position. There is also an 1824 depiction of a yogi’s chakras in stunning blues, ochre, and magenta from Rajasthan, along with a companion piece titled Equivalence of Self and Universe: a full-body portrait of a yogi, standing serenely astride a turtle, with a resplendent pink-and-white petaled lotus atop his head.

The Chakras of the Subtle Body(folio 4 from the Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati Jodhpur, Rajasthan, 1824)
The Chakras of the Subtle Body (folio 4 from the Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati Jodhpur, Rajasthan, 1824)

White dutifully covers the Bhagavad Gita, the great holy book of Hinduism, and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the crucial core texts of yoga. In his discussion of tantric yoga, White — the author of a controversial work, Sinister Yogis — further explores the transgressive and the fetishistic found at the margins of the Hindu tradition. The Tantras, asserts White, “identified self-deification and supernatural powers as the goals of religious life.” Say what?! Fortunately, that slip gets corrected in another essay, by Mallinson and Diamond, which clarifies that the Tantras “provides a foundation for contemplative practices.” Of course, practitioners may pervert or exploit Tantra for self-serving powers — as happens in all spiritual traditions. But in common with the ideals of all yogas, Tantra is a practice in pursuit of moksha (liberation), supernatural powers being the low-hanging fruit of yoga spiritual practices.

Certainly, yoga has undergone all manner of transformation and deviation. But at the end of the day, as anther contributor, Tamara I. Sears, points out, “the true power of yoga remains rooted in its ability to transform the body and mind […] which has ensured its longevity through the present day.” A bridge to the modern age is found in the chapter devoted to colonial photography. Its searing images of near-naked, dreadlocked ascetics and mendicants are almost more telling about the British “preoccupation with the exotic yogi ‘other,’” as Jessica Farquhar writes, than its subjects. In the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the British authorities, more out of desire to monitor its subjects than any anthropological interest, compiled the encyclopedic People of India, eight volumes of 480 images taken by 15 photographers between 1868-1875.

There is far too much, for this reviewer’s taste, on Koringa, a French-born circus performer who claimed supernatural powers — not to mention a confected birth in Rajasthan. Koringa’s inclusion in the chapter on fakirs — notwithstanding her bogus claim of being “the only female yogi in the world” — is a head-scratcher. Then again, it is one of a piece in the current academic vogue of what could be called “Vedic sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll,” however fringe or marginal, in any discussion of Hinduism or yoga.

There is a generous section and several iconic photographs of the remarkable Vivekananda, the Bengali powerhouse who introduced the West to yoga, meditation, and Hinduism in the 1890s. There is also some discussion, along with photographic reproductions of his seminal work, Raja Yoga, arguably the first how-to, self-help book ever written.

Discerning the West’s obsession with physical form, Vivekananda discouraged hatha yoga, believing, quite presciently, that it would encourage an even deeper fixation with the body. “You are not your body,” he often informed his audiences, “and you are not your mind.” It’s hard to know which part of that recipe was more unsettling to can-do Americans.

Sita Reddy, who writes most of the Vivekananda sections, vividly introduces him at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago (1893), when he was finally nudged to the podium, the last speaker of the day: “And thus it was Vivekananda — wearing his signature robe — bowed to the goddess Saraswati, and rose to speak to the Congress, and through it, the world […] making him an overnight celebrity.” Describing his impact, she concludes, he was “at once timeless and universal but also singular and culturally specific; non-sectarian but also Hindu; scientific but filled with spirit.”

Swami Vivekananda, Hindoo Monk of India
Swami Vivekananda, Hindoo Monk of India

There are a smattering of small errors through the book. Vivekananda did not “present himself as the Hindoo monk of India,” but rather resigned himself to the epithet assigned him by newspapers.

Indeed, he complained in his letters of being trotted out as an Oriental “curio” along with all manner of indignities as he steadfastly pursued his mission: “I have a message for the West, as Buddha had a message [for] the East,” he famously told a Brooklyn audience. And White’s inclusion of medieval Tantra “fantasy and adventure literature,” in which “wholesale orgies taking place on cremation grounds in the dead of night,” seems like a sensational digression that will likely confuse lay readers seeking to track an immensely complex cosmology.

That said, there is something to be learned and savored in each of these essays and their excellent contributors. Debra Diamond quotes Vidya Dehejia that “the ideal of the yogic body is visibly evident in all Indian sculptures in their smooth, non-muscular torsos, expanded chests and shoulders and relaxed stomachs.” Good luck today finding a “relaxed stomach” among the Lululemon-spandexed bodies in the ubiquitous yoga studios in the West. For many of the estimated 20 million practitioners of the 21st century, yoga is little more than a fitness cult whose primary goal is to drop a few pounds. But others have settled in to explore the “transformational” power of yoga — all of which is part of the story, and of this book, as yoga continues its 4,000-year continuum.


Author/Journalist Ann Louise Bardach won the PEN USA Award for Journalism in 1994 and has written about Vivekananda in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal Magazine, along with other writings on Vedanta.

LARB Contributor

Ann Louise Bardach is a journalist and author of Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington and Cuba Confidential, and the editor of The Prison Letters of Fidel Castro and Cuba: A Traveler’s Literary Companion.


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