Photo: ©Francis Wacziarg, cover detail, Sinister Yogis.
David Gordon White
Yoga before the Buddha and Patañjali
Yoga before the Buddha and Patañjali
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
See also Conversation: David Gordon White
Sinister Yogis by David Gordon White is a tour-de-force of rigor, humor and excellent questions framing an argument that deserves to be of enduring interest to yoga practitioners. Sinister Yogis is an education in a vast, rich literature of yoga that has been covered up, denigrated, or ignored by the most recent hundred years of practice, commentary and scholarship.
What yogis practice vs what philosophers name yoga
For over a thousand years before the appearance of the Yoga Sūtras (YS) and Bhagavad Gītā (BhG), yoga was a practice of yoking the physical body. Yet today, even when scholars, teachers, and commentators say they are talking about the “ancient tradition” of yoga they are (often knowingly) suppressing its actual history.
The result of denying the roots and realities of yoga, says White, is that “nearly every history of “yoga” written to date has in fact been the history of meditation.”
Erasing a meaningful understanding of yogic yoking in order to give a hyperbolic importance to the practices of contemplation turns out to be a switch not unlike that accomplished by yogis who stole the bodies of kings and went on to live as royal impostors.
The yoga of body snatchers
The first order of the day in White’s account is to correct the idea that yogis throughout time were seekers of transcendent higher purpose. This is accomplished by his opening survey of “a body of literature spanning more than a millennium,” in which
characters are identified as yogis precisely when they undertake to enter into or take over the bodies of other creatures.
White argues against academic colleagues who play down villainous yogis. Given the ubiquitous occurrence of “yoking of another” animal or human body “with one’s own self (ātman)” as the chief mode of operation of yogis in more than a thousand years of Indian texts, White maintains sinister yogis are not mere “literary fixtures.” Through copious (quite captivating) examples, White demonstrates in the entire period of literature, no other representation of yogis even exists.
Why is it that not a single yogi in these narratives is ever seen assuming a yogic posture (āsana); controlling his breath, senses, and mind; engaging in meditation (dhyāna); or realizing transcendent states of consciousness (samādhi) – all of the practices of what has been deemed “classical yoga”?
Damn good Sanskrit, even if you disagree with him
Sinister Yogis progresses by examining accounts of actual practices of yogis, making fine use of a detailed and illuminating reading of Sanskrit for which practitioners who are not Sanskrit scholars can be profoundly grateful. Through his generous explanations of word origins and root word relationships, even practitioners who are disinclined to entertain White’s premise will find they benefit by giving his chapters on Embodied Ascent and The Science of Entering Another Body close consideration.
White’s well-constructed thesis is a direct confrontation with the popular conception of yoga, and an especially trenchant questioning of how yoga is currently taught. White declines to accept the terms of the argument comparing a purported “classical” yoga to contemporary teaching. Sinister Yogis takes as its premise what yogis do rather than what philosophers say:
As we have seen, the image of the dying warrior who is “hitched to his rig,” or “ready to hitch up” in order to advance upward to the highest path, formed the basis for the earliest yoga paradigm, which privileged a dynamic of outward movement and conquest.
Only later, in the period of the latest strata of the epics and of the “classical” Upaniṣads would the goal of yoga practice be transferred to a place hidden within the body’s deepest recesses.
Yoga from the root yuj: yoking the body
Typical modern yoga instruction, for example, is premised with the tenet “yoga means union,” an interpretation that is presented as “going inward.” Based on Patañjali’s eight limbs of yoga, students are taught withdrawal as the foundation for union.
In the context of the wider literature of yoga practice, withdrawal in order to unite is antithetical to the action of yoga itself, says White. For over a thousand years of practice prior to Patañjali, White tells us, the Sanskrit word “yuj” described a practice of “yoking” the physical body, not a practice of “introspection that leads to disengagement of spirit from matter.”
Surveying the history of both Indian and Western interpretations of yoga, one is struck by the absence of reflection on the cognitive dissonance that appears to be operative in the primary sense of the term yoga itself — which means “union,” “joining,” “junction” — is interpreted to mean its opposite, viyoga, which means “separation,” “disunion,” “disjunction.”
Yoga has not been passed unchanging through the ages
White, like other scholars, is keen to dismantle the hagiography of contemporary yoga. The idea that yoga is an ahistorical, unbroken transmission is a perfection White holds as pure fabrication, a recent and fantastical construction based on singling out specific passages of just two texts.
The reef upon which many of these modernist constructions have stranded themselves is the notion that the BhG and YS were capstone works, literary culmination of an unbroken and unchanging tradition of yogic theory and practice extending back to, if not beyond, the Vedas of the second millennium BCE.
In fact, these are works that were compiled toward the end of a five-hundred-year period in which a new synthesis of theory and practice, sometimes referred to as “yoga,” was very much in vogue throughout South Asia.
It’s easy to appreciate this by checking out the commentary of almost any copy of the Yoga Sūtras which often obviate the significance of the vibhūti, in spite of the fact this pada on attainment of extraordinary powers comprises over a quarter of the YS.
A field of meaning that challenges isolated terms
White contends the unexamined overfocus on a few passages of two books to the exclusion of an enormous body of practice and literature distorts and “abuses” yoga. This elision of history and practice serves the agenda of a world view often held patronizingly out of the frame of reference of the practitioner.
Among the multiple accounts of yoga presented in these two works, those that have received the greatest attention, that have been most championed by later commentators and scholars, are those that privilege a disengagement of the senses, mind, and intellect from the outside world.
Yet, as we saw in the previous chapter, accounts of yogis, presumptive agents of yoga, never portray their practice as introversive or introspective – but rather always as extrovert -
Sinister Yogis is a feast of study and reflective reading for practitioners who find themselves dissatisfied with formulations of meaning offered by today’s mainstream yoga texts and translations. It will throw open doors to literature many practitioners would hardly dream existed, with accessible footnotes and a bibliography that point the reader toward a journey of continued discovery.
White demonstrates effectively why the two main texts most frequently treated to commentary and studied by practitioners as the canon of yoga are in fact far from representative of yoga as practiced for centuries.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.