Myth of Yoga 3: New Horizons

 

Looking around the world today it is not difficult to see the crashing of cultures tearing civilizations apart. It could be said that endless war is the rule and not the exception for the human species. As I write, there are over 40 different major conflicts taking place that killed 150,000 people last year alone.  Conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and even drug cartel wars in Mexico all have no end in sight. Homicide deaths in the USA were 16,000 people last year, with 762 coming from Chicago alone. Mass migrations from war-torn countries are challenging societies in Western Europe and North America with questions of how we might best respond to the human tragedy of these conflicts.

One hundred years ago the German scholar Oswald Spengler wrote “The Decline of the West”, in which he described the evolution of societies throughout time as being organic life forms with a predictable birth, adolescence, maturity, decline and death.  This is a concept very foreign to the psyches of most Americans.

For most of its history, the United States has enjoyed a relative stability.  As the preeminent world power since World War II, the thought that our civilization could fall is something that has crossed the minds of very few. However, we now are witnessing dramatic changes that are shaking our very foundations.  Massive increases in the human population over the last 50 years; constant wars over resources and boundaries; environmental degradation of our water and air are just a few of the facts that threatens our very existence.

Human beings have never in their history been faced with the exponential rate of change in the catastrophes that we face. Some even question the ability of the human species to be able to successfully adapt to the magnitude of the challenge.

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An even deeper issue is the breakdown of myth.  Societies must have fully functioning mythologies in order to survive and flourish, and as I have pointed out, the old myths are broken. In 5000 BCE in Iraq, where the first cities on the planet were born, a new problem emerged; how does the culture integrate all of its people into a functioning whole?  Hunter-gathering societies were small tribes sharing a unified connection with each other and their experience of Life; all members of these communities had a basic equivalence in their functions.

But inhabitants of the fertile crescent lived in a relatively large city, and each class was separate and specialized in its own way.  There were merchants and priests, laborers and teachers and governors who each were part of the whole.  So too, in today’s world we are faced with the daunting task of how to integrate the countless disparate individuals and classes into a functioning whole, with the added challenge of having multiple racial and religious cultures to consider.  No longer can we pit one group against the other, as the horizons have all been shattered.  The problem is how to integrate the planet and all its inhabitants, not just one small part of the whole.

With these upheavals as a backdrop, let us now examine the Myth of Yoga in terms of a way forward to our creation of a new, Creative Mythology.  Can our modern practice of yoga offer a light of hope amidst the crises we face? As a reassurance, I would say that in times such as these, it is first necessary for systems to break apart when their foundations have crumbled. Our current chaos is to be expected and welcomed. It could be no other way, and we will undoubtedly emerge from the experience reborn.

The Curious Case of Truth Revealed, Authority and Dependency.

What is it about the human psyche that in matters of faith and belief, we seem to hold in high esteem those authorities that are deemed ‘original sources’?  We give this special status as authentic and pure.  Regardless of country and culture, humans often point to the oldest and ‘most pure’ sources as infallible and ones we would best follow.  We strive to find the oldest manuscript of the Bible as the most legitimate.  Even in political matters and points of law, we in the United States seek to interpret the U.S. Constitution and to divine the true intent of our Founding Fathers, as if there were something sacred and infallible about a document and philosophy crafted over 200 years ago. I am not denying the special nature of our Constitution and its wisdom; it is the oldest living Constitution on Earth.  The question here is why people look at these texts as absolute truth.

lin·e·age

/ˈlinēij/

noun

  1. lineal descent from an ancestor; ancestry or pedigree.

 

The term lineage is also a very interesting idea that appears in most cultures.  From the creative efforts of Old Testament authors to document the exact lineage from Adam to Jesus, to the claims of yoga masters tracing their traditions to Krishna of Mahabharata fame, we should wonder why this fascination with lineage?

Observing children, it is easy to see the importance of the behavior of imitation in the development of human beings.  Young children routinely imitate the actions of older playmates and adults as a central part of their growth and learning.  As a part of our natural evolution as humans, there is embedded in our psyches a deep structure that conditions us to observe the immediate conditions in our external environment and to respond to them accordingly.  There was a certain survival wisdom that developed from primitive cultures as we learned how to survive as a species.  Some of this wisdom was practical skills, i.e., which berries to eat and which to avoid. As tribal societies became more complex, a shift occurred with survival skills transforming into ever more complex ritual activity.

In prehistoric societies, there was a serious attention to detail in the replication and transmission of ritual elements.  Even the slightest variation in a ceremonial form or the shape of a tool was forbidden, as the exact duplication of the rite was imperative for the continuation of the cult.  Or consider the importance of the exact repetition of the oral traditions passed from one generation to the next in the pre-literate societies.  Before the development of writing these oral testimonies were the only way to preserve and pass down the wisdom of the culture.

In fact, one of the functions of a properly operating mythology is pedagogical, namely, teaching the individual members of the culture how to live within the group so that each member of the society is a functioning and contributing member of the tribe.  What starts as imitation often becomes a behavior of survival.   Each culture has created rules about what is right, wrong, acceptable or punishable, and to participate in a society one must adhere to at least some of the important ‘laws’; or face expulsion from the community.  Diverse societies in different times and locales have defined these rules in antithetical ways, leading to conflicts between cultures.

Consider the deep internal conflict within the individual psyche, as we each try to reconcile our spontaneous impulses and desires with the rules of the group.  It is the function of every culture to condition the individual members so that the group continues to survive and flourish.  Thus, we see there are forces at play in the development of the individual that spring from the psyche itself as well as from the external society.

If one studies the development of world cultures with this view in mind, one can discern several distinct themes that have emerged over time.  In primitive societies, authorities are the wielders of power. The visions of the shamans were often the creative spark of new ritual forms which were then enacted and followed by the tribe.

A new epoch dawned with the invention of the arts of food-cultivation, agriculture and animal husbandry, in the nuclear Near East, between c. 7500 and 3550 BCE.  Recall the first cities on earth in ancient Mesopotamia, which developed specialized labor resulting in the creation of the priestly class.  Here was an entirely different experience of the role of the individual, and in fact people found meaning only in relation to the overall group mind.  Our modern western psyches revolt at the thought of the ritual suicide of the royal participants in the tombs of Ur, but here is a vivid example of the power of the authority of the group myth which validated these early agricultural societies.  Human beings are surprisingly bound by the local customs and culture-forms of their tribes. The environments of our upbringing dictate not only our different world views, but also our understanding of ‘reality’ and our place within it.

As these early societies evolved over the millennia, the authority of the priestly class grew, as did the authority of the power of the state.  This continued all over the globe until pivotal transformations occurred with the waning of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the Reformation.  The history of myth in this period can be generally classified as the decline of ecclesiastical authority and the rise of the principle of individual conscience.

It is helpful to see that adherence to the beliefs, morality and reality constructs of the culture is an expected outgrowth from both our genetic heritage as well as the environments in which we are placed.  However, cultures and beliefs are not fixed stars, but rather they evolve over time.  What is today’s deep insight being yesteryear’s heresy.  The problem is how do we recognize the essential truth from within the maze of ethnic customs that blinds our clear insights.

Here is an example of what I consider to be a point of view not constructive to our developing a new Creative Mythology.

I recently saw a video by a Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya (Dr. Frank Morales, Ph.D.), who is apparently of the orthodox Hindu persuasion although born in NYC of Italian and Spanish descent, and who espouses his revelations quite excessively at dharmacentral.com.  Dr. Morales holds the opinion that Sanskrit is “The Language of the Gods”.

He states that “Sanskrit is the world’s most ancient, most logically structured, and most beautiful language. In addition to being a language with one of the most extensive literary traditions known to world culture, Sanskrit is the basis of all classical languages, such as Greek and Latin. More importantly, Sanskrit has been known universally to be the world’s foremost spiritual language. It is the language of Yoga, of meditation, of Hinduism, and of Dharma. Sanskrit is a language that has been specially designed by its creators to most perfectly convey the myriad of subtle sounds, vibrational frequencies and sonic sequences necessary to the proper use of mantras.

 I will not debate the beauty of Sanskrit as it is indeed a wonderful language, but this illustrates the problem of attributing Sanskrit as being the product of ‘divine revelation’, created by God and delivered by the Rishis.  Not only does this view of infinitely ancient origins contradict the empirical evidence of linguistic scholars, but it leads Dr. Morales to ridiculous exhortations such as his saying that the devas in the heavens will only speak Sanskrit, and that if a person traveling to the higher realms does not address these advanced beings in the tongue of Sanskrit, then the devas will simply ignore you. The heavenly realms, you see, are apparently racially divided and caste exclusive, having the air of a Hollywood night club.

Devas

Fortunately for myself, although I am uncertain as to my caste, this will not present a problem, as I can wing a few ‘namastes’ in a pinch…

Seriously however, the important point is that when we focus upon and objectify our local customs (Vedic Devas in Heaven) and transform the belief into a universal law that all humans should be subject to, we confuse the essential truth with the local rite.

Indeed, the divine authority and infallibility of the Vedas is a central pillar of orthodox Hinduism.  As Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh has said:

“The Vedas are the eternal truths revealed by God to the great ancient Rishis of India.  The Rishis saw the truths or heard them. Therefore, the Vedas are what are heard (Sruti). The Rishi did not write. He did not create it out of his mind. He was the seer of thought which existed already.  He is not the inventor of the Veda. The Rishi is only a medium or an agent to transmit to people the intuitional experiences which he received. The truths of the Vedas are revelations. All the other religions of the world claim their authority as being delivered by special messengers of God to certain persons, but the Vedas do not owe their authority to anyone. They are themselves the authority as they are eternal, as they are the Knowledge of the Lord.

 This viewpoint is problematic.  Whenever you define a scripture as ‘divine revelation’ in this way, you have removed the ability to have constructive dialogue or debate.  If the Vedas “are themselves the authority as they are eternal” as Sivananda says, then that tends to shut the door to open discussion.  There are many religions with the same claim of pompous divine truth revealed to humanity directly from God.  Unfortunately, the different world scriptures contain different and contradictory statements as to what Truth is, and universally have errors of fact within each of the traditions themselves.

Additionally, different world scriptures have varying rules of conduct and moralities, and the question of how to reconcile conflicts within the texts of the religion in question, or to that of another religion, arises with no easy answers.  For instance, the Vedic era Laws of Manu contain some particularly cruel and offensive punishments for lower castes and women, such as “a sudra who insults a twice-born man shall have his tongue cut out”, or consider the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy’s pronouncement and punishment to kill everyone in a town including animals if most people in a town come to believe in a different god.

There is a huge temptation to just blindly follow a seductive, exotic teaching.  Incense, candles, Sanskrit sounding words. What is more challenging is to see the elementary idea that lies within the local costume.

If we look at the practices of yoga over the centuries, it is not difficult to observe an evolution of postures and forms. I would also note that there is another evolution in modern yoga, and that is from the authoritative to the creative.  Just as we can see the hierarchical power structures of the major religious traditions break down, our practice of yoga is revitalized as we turn from following strict rules, and instead listen to the guidance from within.  Once you realize that the mystery is about something that is within YOU, and not something or someone you are going to find outside of yourself, the whole game changes.

Troubadours, Love & The Holy Grail

troubador

A pivotal time in this transformation and evolution from state authority to the individual conscience is during the 12th century in Europe.

The songs of the troubadours beginning in the 12th century ushered in a new creativity in literature and the arts, and culminated in a breakthrough of the individual against the authority of church and state.  The classic works of Tristan and Isolde, and Gottfried’s Grail Romances resonate with the power of love.  As Joseph Campbell writes in his essay “The Mythology of Love”;

 

“Marriage in the Middle Ages was almost exclusively a social, family concern—as it has been forever, of course, in Asia, and is to this day for many in the West.  One was married according to family arrangements.  Particularly in aristocratic circles, young women hardly out of girlhood were married off as political pawns.  And the Church, meanwhile, was sacramentalizing such unions with its inappropriately mystical language about the two that were now to be of one flesh, united through love and by God; and let no man put asunder what god hath joined.  Any actual experience of love could enter into such a system only as a harbinger of disaster. grail For not only could one be burned at the stake in punishment for adultery, but, according to current belief, one would also burn forever in Hell.  And yet love came, even so, to such noble hearts as were celebrated by Gottfried; not only came, but was invited in.  And it was the word of the troubadours to celebrate this passion, which in their view was of a divine grace altogether higher in dignity than the sacraments of the Church, higher than the sacrament of marriage, and, if excluded from Heaven then sanctified in Hell.”

We are transitioning from archaic rules based mythological forms to a period of creative myth.  Whether one speaks of primitive rites of old aboriginal cultures north or south, or examines the great high culture systems of the Near East, or their later variants in Asia or the West, what is pronounced is the importance of the group.  While it is true that the visions of the Shamans were inspired by the experiences springing from within themselves, these are altogether a different orientation from the rules of a priesthood which controlled the actions and behaviors of people during the Middle Ages.  Regardless of whether you focus upon Indian gurus and parampara traditions, or Christianity in Europe under the Holy Roman Empire, the basic thought is that someone other than you knows the answer and you best submit to an authority greater than yourself.

In our modern practice of yoga, we have a similar situation; many of us had our first hatha experience in the hot studios of Bikram Choudhary.  While it is clear that Bikram’s 26 posture series was transformative for many, over time the dogmatic insistence upon exact imitation with no room for variations did not feel authentic. While it is proper for a student to first learn from the teacher, at some point the student must transcend the teacher.  Blind adherence in the beginning of one’s journey might be justified, but at some point, we must trust our own inward guidance.

Considering that the love calls of the troubadours began almost a thousand years ago, and with it the march toward an authentic expression of human marriage, it is poignant that while many do not look to the church for marriage sanctity, the power of the state has never been stronger in controlling our lives.  In summary, we see a historical evolution from the authority of the group to the power of the individual conscience in societies around the world.  Imitation and lineages are natural expressions of survival tactics for our species, but with the rise of science we are witnessing a tremendous transformation in all areas of our modern lives.

Creative Yoga…A New Beginning

We are finally at a point in our story where we can now focus on our original question:  “Does the modern practice of yoga have the potential to exist as a fully developed myth?”  We have thoughtfully considered what a mythic structure is, and we can best move forward by asking; how does yoga integrate the four functions of myth?: mystical, cosmological, sociological and psychological.

Our explorations of the history of yoga shows that yoga is not a fixed orthodoxy that came from a set of divine revelations.  Instead, we know that yoga, its practices and forms, has been in a state of continual evolution, and has both fixed and variable components.

The Mystical Function: Awakening in the mind a sense of AWE before the mystery of being.

Mystical:  The first function of mythology is the mystical, so that the rites convey an actual experience of Awe in contemplation of the Mystery.  Just as a 12th century pilgrim to Chartres Cathedral would enter a ritual space filled with images and sounds which were preparatory to the mass, most yoga studios today arrange the elements within the ritual space to create a similar groundwork.chartres Shoes are removed just as in any Hindu temple.  As mats are placed, a hushed silence ensues and oftentimes soft music is played as the practitioners settle in.  Some studios include an opening invocation or chant which further establishes the ambiance, similar to an opening hymn sung before communion.  Mythology without a grounding in the Mystical becomes just political ideology.  There is a fundamental difference between the two, and I would argue that today’s Yoga is grounded in the Mystical.

Breath and body focus quiets the mind. Alignment releases stress and the experience of stillness results.

How does the yoga studio function specifically as a mythic space?  As the yogis engage in ritual practice, with a shared experience of movement and breath, they realize an experiential connection with something greater than themselves.

In my view, the mystical connection is really the heart of the matter, so let’s delve a bit deeper here.  I had a teacher years ago who liked to speak of “the trick”.  This resonated with my own experiences on the mat, so I’ll elaborate.  In the beginning of our practices, we come for many different reasons.  Our fears and desires all lead us in different ways to take that first step into the yoga studio. Perhaps you want to exercise and reduce your weight; get ripped or cardio care; your friend says that’s where the girls like to go; you need more flexibility; you heard it is a cool place to be; there is a great teacher there; pressure from your girlfriend(s)… The-Woom-Center-Immersive-YogaSo, you go into the room and it happens to be a hot class.  My first class was a Bikram class in San Diego.  I would swear it was 108 degrees and led by a very fierce “Bikram Nazi”.  I made the mistake of asking a question about a pose we were doing and heard a sharp “NO QUESTIONS!” barked in reply. The experience of unfamiliar postures, extreme heat and military style energy created an experience where eventually your mind stops thinking and you are just in survival mode.  You are not worrying about the past, nor planning what you will have for dinner; you are in the present.

The trick is simply this:  You enter into an environment for one reason, and what you get is something entirely different from what you planned.  In the case of yoga, what you get is a taste of ‘Now’.  Eckhart Tolle speaks eloquently about this in his writings:

“The reason why some people love to engage in dangerous activities, such as mountain climbing, car racing, and so on, although they may not be aware of it, is that it forces them into the Now—that intensely alive state that is free of time, free of problems, free of thinking, free of the burden of the personality. Slipping away from the present moment even for a second may mean death. Unfortunately, they come to depend on a particular activity to be in that state. But you don’t need to climb the north face of the Eiger. You can enter that state now.”

Humans are so very attached to using their thoughts as the primary way of perceiving and structuring the universe and their reality, that we forget that there is another avenue of awareness at our disposal.Looking back to the beginnings of life on our planet, we see a timeline of life and the evolution of the human species that gives great perspective to our place.  The current cosmology as formulated by our respected scientists goes something like this:

4.6 billion years ago:  Our solar system begins; Earth collision with planetoid forms the Moon.   
3.9 billion years ago:  Meteorites bombarded Earth bringing along water and other elements.
3.8 billion years ago: Surface of Earth changed from molten to solid rock.
3.6 billion years ago: The first simple cells, oxygen producing bacteria.
3.4 billion years ago: Stromatolites demonstrated photosynthesis.
1.5 billion years ago:  Organisms with complex cells containing nucleus appeared.
650 million years ago:  Mass extinction of 70% of dominant sea plants.
580 million years ago:  Simple soft-bodied organisms developed, i.e. Jellyfish.
4.4 million years ago:  Early hominid genus Ardipithecus appears.

 

earth timelineFrom this timeline, we see that for around 99.9% of Earth’s existence, the planet Earth has been free of human life and our powers of thought.  Life seems to get along just fine without people having to think about it.  Worries about the past, the importance of planning for the future seems rather unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. Not to say that humans can only exist with thought as our only source of awareness.  Perhaps one of our gifts is the ability to turn thought on and off as we need it.  Perhaps by focusing our attention upon the breath and simple sensation we can explore and experience our connection with life other than thought.

The point is that if we examine the history of life in the universe, we see that rational thought (or irrational thought for that matter) is entirely absent from ‘that which is’.  The power of thought is remarkable in its technological achievements, but humans are hard-wired with other ways of experiencing life and the universe.  Thought keeps us in the experience of separateness and isolation.

So, we have the trickster…The myths do not arise from someone thinking a new thought and planning a new mythic system for all to follow.  Myths spring from the depths of the psyche and as they blossom they put on the raiment’s of various rituals and practices.  In the case of modern yoga, we have practitioners originally coming for one reason or another, and then as an experience of ‘being’ occurs; their practice deepens and evolves as they find themselves nurtured and fulfilled in a deep and connected way.

This experience of the ‘Now’ which so many us can relate to is just the beginning of a practice of yoga.  The wisdom of Yoga and its survival for thousands of years is due to its understanding of the relationship between breath and awareness.  As our practice deepens, there are many more ‘tricks’ to come!

The Cosmological Function: Explaining the shape of the universe.

When Columbus sailed on his fourth voyage, he wrote a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella in which he stated his belief about the location of the Mount of Purgatory, as described in Dante’s Divina Comedia. We now know that this mountain is not a physical reality in the Pacific Ocean, nor is the world flat.

The rise of science has propelled humanity to continually revise and alter our explanations about the nature and shape of the universe.  Fast forward 500 years from the time of Columbus and we see that, except for the isolated primitive societies spotted around the globe, humanity generally embraces the dominant scientific theories which explain our current understandings. The cosmological function presents a map or picture of the order of the cosmos and our relationship to it.  Our modern cosmology in the yoga room, (at least in those rare times when it is articulated) is generally a marriage of Hindu Philosophy with Quantum Physics.  While it is not the subject of our discourse, there are growing numbers in the scientific community in support of the view that the fundamental basis of the universe is not matter, but rather consciousness.

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Domenico di Michelino Dante and His Poem (1465) fresco, in the dome of the church of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence

The second function of mythology and religion is to present an image and understanding of the universe that will support our experience of the mystery.  In our time, we have relegated this cosmological function to science, but as you realize, over the course of the ages, man’s understanding and man’s image of the universe, has greatly changed along with science.

 

While it is true that Aristotle is recognized as giving the earliest systematic treatise on the nature of scientific inquiry in the western tradition, one which embraced observation and reasoning about the natural world, it was during the medieval period, with figures such as Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) and Roger Bacon (1214/1220–1292), who worked to clarify the kind of knowledge which could be obtained by observation and induction.   Bacon described a cycle of observation, hypothesis, experimentation and verification. He precisely recorded his so that others could independently test his results. It is interesting to note that this is the same century during which the Grail Romances and the new expressions of Amor gained popularity.  It is not hard to see that in both science and culture a new flowering of knowledge is taking place. As superstition and outdated beliefs are dissolved, the force of the individual conscience and knowledge gains strength.

For our concerns here, it would be fair to say that the yogic community is aligned with a current cosmology of the universe, and it both speaks to and is informed by the Mystical dimension.

The Sociological Function: Validate and support the existing social order.

The sociological function changes dramatically from time and place, driven by exponential technological change and the rise of the individual. The world is slowly emerging from a regional tribal view of ‘my group vs. the other’ to an understanding that all humans share a common nature. This is not a call for ‘open borders’ nor the end of the sovereign state.  It is just a recognition that human beings are all living on one planet, and that we all share a common heritage.  Myth supports and validates the specific moral order of the society out of which it arose. Life-customs of this social dimension, such as ethical laws and social roles, are evolving rapidly. However, it seems that yogis and yoginis generally share some common sociological traits.

  1. Central to yoga is the world view that all is one. God is immanent and humans share the same ontological nature as the creator.
  2. The rapidity with which social institutions are breaking down creates a psychic dis-harmony which causes us to seek out experiences of peace and connection.
  3. Yoga practitioners seem to have an inquiry-based outlook that questions establishment authority and embraces exploration of alternative cultures.
  4. Yogis acknowledge that environmental crises are compelling us to take a global perspective. What happens in one continent effects the whole planet.

Yoga studios provide a sense of community and connection with shared ritual activity, in a small local environment, while at the same time a vast global network has developed whereby a traveler to any city in the world can now share the same ritual experience, which is what myth is all about.  There are classes and workshops on every continent where you can participate in rituals forms amongst the countless independent yoga studios that exist.  Similar to a church or temple denomination, the liturgical forms might be varied depending upon the local custom and culture, however, Bastian’s Elementary Idea remains.

The Psychological Function: Guide the individual through the stages of life.

This 4th function of mythology is constant within the human species, regardless of time and space. This psychological or pedagogical function carries the individual through the various stages and crises of life, from childhood dependency, to the responsibilities of maturity, to the reflection of old age, and finally, to death. It helps people grasp the unfolding of life with integrity. It initiates individuals into the order of realities in their own psyches, guiding them toward enrichment and realization.  We all face the problems of how to navigate ourselves through the stages of life.  Our yoga communities provide a needed physical and psychic location which binds us together as we pass through life’s turnings.

We often gather together in celebration as we commemorate the significant passages of birth, coming of age, marriage and death.  Gathering friends and family with others in small community settings provides opportunities for ritual healing.

In the Introduction to his book “Ritual & Healing”, my old friend Don Eulert summarizes what ritual is for:

“When ritual attention is paid, something creative happens. Ritual:

  • Provides meaning, order, purpose, relationship.
  • Helps with life-stage passages, transformation.
  • Gives solidarity to cultural world-view and membership.
  • Brings into life those things in our unconscious we do not ordinarily access.
  • Re-minds that we belong to a supra-rational field of biological, cultural, psychological, and cosmological relationships.”

Myths serve primarily to relate man to his environment, and so the myth of yoga.

Perhaps what is happening in our yoga classes today can be illumined by a story from Japan.  During my travels there I have been fortunate to explore not only the Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples of Kyoto and Nara, but also to participate in Shugendo rituals in the forests of the sacred Kumano Kodo, where practitioners perform ritual actions during arduous climbs in sacred mountains. Shugendo is a blend of Shamanism, Shintō, Taoism, and Tantric Buddhism in which the experience is that of the fundamental interconnectedness with nature and all sentient beings.

10547185_shinto-dance-performance-at-resobox-on-sat_tf2c82fa5

Joseph Campbell tells a story which was circulating during the 1958 Congress for the History of Religions in Tokyo, a dialogue between a delegate from New York City and a Shinto priest.  Both had presented papers during the meetings, and their conversation illustrates a key difference in the “myth-understandings” of religious experience.

The Western sociologist had visited a number of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, and had participated in a few Shinto rituals. As Campbell relates:

“Such a place of worship is without images, simple in form, wonderfully roofed, and often painted a nice clear red.  The priests, immaculate in white vesture, black headdress, and large black wooden shoes, move about in files with stately mien.  An eerie music rises, reedy, curiously spirit like, punctuated by controlled heavy and light drumbeats and great gongs; threaded with the picked, harp like sounds of a spirit-summoning koto.  And then noble, imposing, heavily garbed dancers silently appear, either masked or un-masked, male or female.  These move in slow, somewhat dream-like or trancelike, shamanizing measure; stay for a time before the eyes, and retire, while utterances are intoned.  One is thrown back two thousand years.  The pines, rocks, forests, mountains, air, and Sea of Japan awake and send out spirits on those sounds.  They can be heard and felt all about.  And when the dancers have retired and the music has stopped, the ritual is done.  One turns and looks again at the rocks, the pines, the air and sea, and they are as silent as before.  Only now they are inhabited, and one is aware anew of the wonder of the universe.

 It is naturally difficult for some types of people, particularly logical, Western types, to have an experience of what is evoked by the art of the Shinto ritual.  And so, to continue our story, the NYC sociologist remarked to the Shinto priest, “You know, I have now been to a number of these Shinto shrines, and I’ve seen quite a few rites, and I’ve read about it, thought about it; but you know, I don’t get the ideology.  I don’t get your theology.”

 “And that Japanese gentleman, polite, as though respecting the foreign scholar’s profound question, paused a while as though in thought.  Then he looked, smiling, at his friend. “We do not have ideology,” he said.  “We do not have theology.  We dance.”

 Which, precisely, is the point.  For Shinto, at root, is a religion not of sermons but of awe:  which is a sentiment that may or may not produce words, but in either case goes beyond them.   Not a “grasp of the conception of spirit,” but a sense of its ubiquity, is the proper end of Shinto.”

A Shinto rite, then, can be defined as an occasion for the recognition and evocation of an awe that inspires gratitude to the source and nature of being.  And as such, it is addressed as art to the sensibilities(awareness) not to the faculties of definition.  So that living Shinto is not the following of some set-down moral code, but a living in gratitude and awe amid the mystery of things.

So, to put Shinto in context for our purposes here, I would suggest that the potential for modern yoga to emerge as a source of mythic significance lies in experiencing our yoga practices in much the same way as this ancient Japanese rite. The depth of yoga is not ‘addressed to the faculties of thought’, but rather to an experience of the awe and mystery of life.  Yogis properly have no ideology…We Breathe!
262px-Avalokiteśvara_-_Padmapani,_Ajanta_Caves_(4243433392)

As we draw to a close, let me conclude with a discussion of the Five Koshas”, which are part of Vedanta philosophy.  A Kosha is a sheath or covering of the Atman or Self, which can be understood for our purposes as the Transcendent Mystery or Soul. In Vedanta, the Koshas are oftentimes depicted as the various skin layers of an onion, so that we get the basic concept that there are five energetic layers which make up the human being.

The first of these coverings is Annamaya Kosha, which is the physical body.  Anna means food, and our bodies are both sustained by food, and also become food for some other organism at the end of our life.  The Lion King got it right with the “Circle of Life”.  Or as I like to say, the nature of life is that life eats life.

The next is Pranamaya Kosha, or energy sheath.  Prana is the energy that vitalizes the body, giving it life. The pranic sheath pervades the whole body and mind and is associated with the breath.

The 3rd Kosha is Manomaya, namely the manas or mind.  This mental sheath and its thoughts create identity and the illusion of ego and separateness.   As Annamaya Kosha is related to and animated by Pranamaya Kosha, similarly Manomaya Kosha is connected to both the food and energy koshas.  When the foodsheath is in pain, so too the mindsheath; it thinks “All life is sorrowful”.  If the body is happy, so too the mind.  Manomaya Kosha is oriented towards the food and energy sheaths.

The next sheath is known as Vijnanamaya Kosha; the sheath of wisdom.  This is the wisdom of the body, the wisdom that shaped you in the mother’s womb, the wisdom that clots your blood, the wisdom that grows the grass, the wisdom that informs the trees, the forests, the universe.  This is the wisdom of spontaneous life, which is independent of thought and mind, the wisdom that Manomaya Kosha rides upon.

You scrape your knee and the red blood flows then stops.  Can your mind understand and direct this process and know the chemistry of the affair?  The mind and ego become infantile amateurs when faced with the mysterious natural order of things.  But who is it that is clotting your blood. It’s you!  Not your mentality, but your wisdom body.

So, what is at the center of the sheaths?  Just like the layers of an onion, beneath the wisdom body we have Anandamaya Kosha, the sheath of bliss.  Life is the manifestation of rapture.  Our poor mental sheath gets all engrossed in what’s happening with the food body, and it thinks “oh dear, oh dear!”  Growing up in New Orleans, the summer ritual of mowing the lawn every week was part of my DNA. It seemed that just after I’d cut the grass it needed another trimming.  Now suppose the grass said, “oh what’s the use, he’s just going to cut me again” and stopped growing.  We can laugh at the obvious absurdity, but according to Vedanta, our identification with our thoughts and the superficial Koshas is equally absurd, albeit less obvious.

This highlights two different orientations.  The mentality of thought has to do with the dualities of morality and ethics, good and evil, pain and pleasure; all the categories of thought.  The rational mind exists by making comparisons.  There are Creation Myths in many lands that all share a similar story about the nature of the primordial being; it is said that the first thoughts were fear and desire.  Our thoughts are either attracted to something or repelled against it.  The other orientation is towards the powers within you that your mind can’t begin to understand. Your wisdom body knows that there is more to life.   What is it?  Bliss!  That’s what you are, really. You are rooted in rapture, and even in your pain, your anguish, your great sorrow, if you know where the secret door of rapture lies within you, that will be your rock and salvation.

 

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Myth of Yoga 2: Functions of Myth

Myth as Truth: A Brief History of Mythology

The popularity of yoga in the West has grown exponentially over the past few decades, and I suspect that this is not a passing fad. Looking at this cultural phenomenon we see that there are many different levels of interest in the practice of yoga. For some it is a good way to exercise and move the body. It is fun to go to a yoga class, and perhaps many just have this level of involvement. For others, however, it is a way of life, and a source of connection and community. Why are people drawn to yoga? Is it just a feel good method of bodily health and exercise? Or is something else going on here? Continuing our exploration from Part 1, I wish to guide the reader into considerations of yoga as perhaps a ritual practice of ‘mythic proportions’. Let us see what the elements of yoga are in the sense of “Myth as Truth”.

Before we can speak about yoga in terms of a myth-religion however, I want to take some time to really set the stage properly, and to define what a myth is in the religious sense, and to examine the functions that all myths properly rendered serve. Regardless of the particular belief, whether ancient or modern, east or west, every religion has a basic structure which is common to all religions, just as houses, although trimmed in different styles and painted different colors, all are constructed upon similar engineering principles.

mythmiTH/noun

1.  A traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.

tcave bear skull

h the human life

High in the Swiss Alps a century ago there were discovered little shrines containing the skulls of bears in small caves. The 1917 Drachenloch cave excavation by Emil Bachler uncovered more than 30,000 cave bear skeletons. Some remarkable findings included a stone chest consisting of a low wall built from limestone slabs near a cave wall with a number of bear skulls inside it. A cave bear skull was found with a femur bone from another bear stuck inside it.

We know that in primitive mythologies around the world prehistoric hunting and gathering tribes had a special interaction with their animal neighbors, whom they were killing and eating all the time. There are countless examples of ritual ceremony involving animals, especially the bear.

During the course of the last ice age, the Riss-Würm glacier period, those caves were frozen with ice and completely inaccessible. And after the time of that glaciation, there were no cave bears on Earth. So these little shrines—with these cave bear skulls, small fires and small artifacts suggesting that there had been primitive religious practice there—date from 200,000 years ago. Here we can see the earliest evidence of mythic practice among humans.

Why do human beings engage in such rituals? Regardless of the culture, language or tradition we universally observe humans in ritual practices in an attempt make sense of the basic mysteries of life. For our Neanderthal cousins, perhaps it was the observation of the mysteries of life and death.

D’où venons nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?

Years ago I was visiting the Boston Museum of Art and unexpectedly came upon this Gauguin masterpiece, which literally took my breath away. I had seen a photo of the piece, but did not realize the massive scale of the original oil painting.

Our practice of yoga today provides us with an opportunity to once again ask those primeval questions which fascinated and perhaps tortured Gauguin…

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going.”

In 1909 The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung was working on his magnificent “Symbols of Transformation”, in which he was diving deeply into the well of mythic symbols from around the world. In this exploration, Jung stated that “ it struck me what it means to live with a myth, and what it means to live without one.” He asked himself, “What is the myth I am living?” and found that he did not know. Jung wrote that ” I took it upon myself to get to know ‘my’ myth, and I regarded this as the task of tasks.”

Now I want to ask you, the reader, a very critical question. What is the myth by which you are living your life?

Joseph Campbell, in his Masks of God series, surveyed the mythological orders of societies around the world, from the primitive rites of the shamans to the grand high culture forms present today. He identified 4 basic functions which all living myths display. The summary that follows is paraphrased and taken from his work.

The Mystical Function: Awakening in the mind a sense of AWE before the mystery of being.

The Cosmological Function: Explaining the shape of the universe.

The Sociological Function: Validate and support the existing social order.

The Psychological Function: Guide the individual through the stages of life.

The first function of mythology is to reconcile waking consciousness to the tremendous mystery of this universe as it is; to awaken and support a sense of awe in the individual before the nature of being itself. This opens up a realization of the mystical dimension, so that by participating in ritual forms, you are made aware, experientially, that behind the surface appearances of the world, there is a great mystery of life and that is also the mystery deep within yourself.

Now the various religions of the world have different answers and inflections in response to this question. But the point is that at some point in our lives we all face this fundamental question of what is this life that we experience.

Question: What does life do? What is it?

Now if you think what it is that life does, what life has to do in order to be life—it has to kill and eat other life. That is the basic thing. An observation of biological life reveals a constant changing of forms, an impermanence if you will. Regardless of scale, whether microscopic bacteria or viewing our planet from space, we can observe the transformation of life, from the oceans through the air. Even within your own body there is a constant battleground as different cellular components wage a ceaseless war within you. This is a rather monstrous thing. And when we see what the situation is, on which your own life depends—when consciousness become aware of the pre-conditions of its own existence, there is often a sense of shock, a sense of horror. Recall the image of the serpent ouroboros consuming its own tail and eating itself. Considered from this perspective, it appears that there is an energy that animates all of creation, and flows throughout the universe endlessly creating new forms and dissolving the existing appearances back into the mysterious circle of life.

egypt oroborus

Campbell observes that the mystical function of mythology “is to put the conscious mind – which is in touch only with the surface phenomenology of the world – in touch with the ground of those phenomena.”

I recently attended a local showing of the film “Cowspiracy” which is an environmental film arguing the benefits of a vegan lifestyle, primarily focusing on the inefficiency of animal agriculture and the carbon emissions that result from meat production. While making many solid arguments in favor of the benefits of moving towards a plant based solution to feed humans on a global scale, towards the end of the movie the filmmaker sets up a very emotional scene in which he witnesses the beheading of a duck.

Poignantly framing his logic with a bloody death scene, the filmmaker is stunned into near catatonia as he proclaims “I won’t have someone else do what I myself cannot do”, climatically exclaiming his ultimate raison d’etre for not eating meat!

While I respect anyone’s individual choice on either side of the meat eating issue, the movie’s overall tone was one of an all too familiar story, namely the argument that eating meat and killing animals is wrong in moral terms. This view is commonly seen today whenever we see PETA members demonstrating for a radical world-make-over in their likeness.

Again to reference the movie’s climax, the “now-found-religion” movie-maker’s emotional reaction was so profound, that it is worthy of exploration. What we have is an up close and personal experience of death. It is one thing to have opinions and thoughts about something, but a primal experience brings a sense of reality that thought cannot render. When a person is faced with death, a certain shock enters into the nervous system. Many times a paralysis of the will sets in. We don’t want to face death, we don’t like death, so we want to avoid anything associated with death. I remember Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and her important life’s work of changing the culture of denial in our medical institutions around death and dying. There is also a psychological aspect of this ‘shock’ that has similarities to a refusal to move forward and through a ‘threshold moment’. It is “initiation time” and the candidate for illumination hesitates and turns his back upon the challenge at hand…Consider Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, or the story of Parzival in the Holy Grail.

My observation is that sitting with an experience of death in any form is an opportunity to be with a very important teacher. If your response to the teaching is a pushing away, denial, formulating a moral judgment, or adopting a protest mentality, then you are pushing away and denying a fundamental aspect of your own nature.

In 1837 the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote of an aspect of this experience in his essay The Basis of Morality.  How is it, he asks, that an individual can so forget himself and his own safety that he will put himself and his life in jeopardy to save another from death or pain—as though that others life were his own?  Such a one is then acting, Schopenhauer answers, out of an instinctive recognition that he and that other in fact are one. He is acting not from the lesser, secondary knowledge of himself as separate from others, but from an immediate experience of a greater truth, that we are all one in the ground of our being. Schopenhauer’s name for this motivation is “Mitleid”, or compassion, and he identifies it as the primary inspiration of moral action. For a moment one is selfless, boundless, without ego.

Schopenhauer showed an early concern for the welfare of animals. For him, all individual animals, including humans, are essentially the same, being phenomenal manifestations of the one underlying Will. The word “Will” which is central to his philosophy is better translated as the word “Energy”. Since everything is basically energy, then humans and animals are fundamentally the same and can recognize themselves in each other. For this reason, he claimed that a good person would have sympathy for animals, who are our fellow sufferers.

Considering “Cowspiracy”, it is a very natural reaction that our empathy and compassion extends to another creature, and I tend to agree with Shopenhauer’s point of view. Nor have I quarrel with PETA!

It is quite interesting to note that Schopenhauer was probably the first Western philosopher to read the Indian Upanishads, having obtained an obscure Persian version translated into Latin. So here we are in 1818 and a German philosopher has fashioned a remarkable synthesis of ideas East & West.  It is well known that the book always lay at his bedside table, and he invariably studied it before sleeping at night. He called Sanskrit literature “the greatest gift of our century”, and predicted that the philosophy and knowledge of the Upanishads would become a cherished faith of the West.

What is curious however, is that Schopenhauer is primarily known for his ‘pessimism’, and one of the key arguments he sets forth in “The World as Will and Representation” is that this “Will” or “Energy” which animates the Universe, IS the Universe. This is a notion readily understood by yogis as it is a common foundational principle in most Eastern philosophies.

So the profound paradox, if I can speak it plainly, is that on the one hand we have on a grand scale the universe of impersonal energy ceaselessly transforming itself, but if we focus upon the separate individual forms we see the personal horror of life eating life. The world “as it is has a central appearance of suffering. Let us recall the 1st Noble Truth of the Buddha– All life is sorrowful. Schopenhauer has taken this Buddhist sentiment and in one of his most famous quotes has written:

Life is something that should not have been”.

Looked at from this perspective, there is no doubt about the suffering inherent in life. The key question I ask myself is:

How do we joyfully participate in the sorrows?

3 Attitudes Towards Myth

Now a general survey of mythologies finds that there are 3 attitudes toward this experience of awe. One is that of affirmation; that is to say, we say ‘yes to life’. The primitive mythologies of the world are all in this category. Life with all of its pains and sorrows was completely embraced by these societies. Just look at any of the initiation rites from Australia or Africa as an example. Some of the Australian rites are almost unimaginable: what those youngsters go through when they’re eleven– thirteen years old. One of the more unappetizing aspect is this of the older men bleeding themselves, and the boys live for weeks on men’s blood—they’re weaning them from woman’s food, the mother milk; and the boys, along with the men’s blood, are receiving manly wisdom. The mythology is communicated through this. The woman gives birth to a nature being. The men’s blood gives birth to a culture being: someone who has been integrated in the culture heritage.

The other attitude is that of rejection; At a certain time in human history (the date is somewhere around the seventh century BCE) we begin to get evidence of strong negative reactions to this. It’s a mistake, a cosmic error. And when this comes, we get a system of myths having to do with withdrawing from it all, which has its strongest statement in Jainism in India and Hinayana Buddhism. These are the prime religions of this absolute negation: the world cannot be corrected and must be just rejected. Now, these are the two primary mythological orientations: that of affirmation, with gratitude, with joy in participation, with rapture; and that of absolute withdrawal.

There is also a third mythological approach to this first function of reconciling consciousness with the world: The third position is that of correction. Now this mythology of correction, which is the one that most of us inherit, is characteristic of the Near East. The earliest example of it in the records is in the Persian religion of Zoroaster. This is a new thing in the history of mythology. And the dating of Zoraster is uncertain, perhaps as early as 1100BCE or as late as 600BCE.

It is one of the characteristics of our modern world that we don’t face these first two alternatives of affirmation or rejection, but we try to say, “Well, I will affirm life. I don’t like people who don’t. But I’ll affirm it on condition that it reforms and makes itself go the way I believe it should go.” We then pick and choose what we believe is the ‘good’ and demonize the ‘bad’.

The Second Function of Mythology

The second function of mythology and religion is to present an image and understanding of the universe that will support this experience of the mystery. In our time we have relegated this cosmological function to science, but as you realize, over the course of the ages, man’s understanding and man’s image of the universe, has greatly changed along with science.

The image of the cosmos must change with the development of the mind and the knowledge; otherwise the mythic statement is lost, and man becomes disassociated from the very basis of his own religious experience. Realize that all of the great traditions in their own time were scientifically correct. That is to say, they were correct in terms of the scientific image of that age. So there must be a scientifically validated image.

The Third Function of Mythology

Now the third function of a living mythological tradition is to validate and maintain a certain moral order and to integrate the individual to his group. These moral orders greatly differ from one society to another. For example, the requirements of a primitive hunting community are very different from those of a primitive planting community. What is required of the young men and women when they mature is in each case quite different.

Likewise, in a complex society of differentiated tasks—with professional doctors, astronomers and scientists, professional governing people, merchants and businessmen, all of these coordinated in one society—we have a quite different social problem, a quite different moral problem from that of a simple primitive community. And so there is this variation from society to society in terms of the social orders. One of the very important ideas in mythology, and in the rites of a mythologically based culture is that the individual must be shaped—he must be made to react in the way that that culture wants.

The Fourth Function of Mythology

The fourth function of a mythology is a psychological one, namely to guide and assist the individual through the stages of life. Societies have changed throughout time, but the problem of the individual in his life course has not greatly changed. Regardless of culture, the problems of adolescence, maturity, old age and death are rather constant in life. The psyche must be centered and unfolded into accord with itself, the society, universe and the mystery of being itself.

In the great living traditions, all of these functions were served simultaneously and harmoniously.

dante3

So we have the 4 functions of Mythology. Consider Medieval Christianity as an example. Every aspect of life was integrated in a singular vision. Entering the great cathedrals of Europe one experienced heaven on Earth. The institution of the Church was manifested in all areas of life, from the awe and wonder of the beatific vision of God, presented in the science of the day as Dante’s cosmology in which the universe is divided into three sections, Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise. All of this was perfectly reflected in the Arts and Music, the social order of the day, not to mention the universal understanding of man’s place in the mythology, and the stages of human life.

Now since we are considering yoga in this discussion, it is important to understand some of the differences between the Mosaic Religions and those from the East.In the East, the ultimate divine mystery is beyond personification, beyond naming, absolutely beyond categories. You cannot ask, “Is God merciful or wrathful? Does he like these people and not those?” This is a projection of human thought on an ultimate mystery. But that mystery which is absolutely transcendent is the mystery of your being as well: it is completely imminent within you. So you have a saying from the Chåndogya Upanishad: tat tvam asi, “Thou Art That.”

The aim of these Oriental religions is for you to experience your identity with that which is the ultimate mystery of all being; your identity with it, not as a concept but to have an experience and a realization deep within you of your identity with that divine power.

In the West something entirely different happened. Around 2500BCE there came out of the Arabian desert the Semitic Nomads up into the zone of the great cultures of Mesopotamia.

These were comparatively primitive people. They did not have great learned priesthoods studying the organization of the cosmos. They were warrior people who understood the power and function of the individual. And it is at this time that a totally new theme appeared in the mythologies of the Near East. It is this: that man is not divine; that man and the creator are not of the same essence. God created the universe; God created man; God and man are not the same. This is a fundamental idea that now inhabits all of Western myth, and distinguishes it from the Oriental.

The goal of the Oriental thought is unity: that man should experience his identity with divinity.

In fact, the preaching of identity is the prime heresy in this tradition of ours. When Christ said, “I and the Father are one,” he was crucified. When Hallaj, nine hundred years later, said the same thing in Islam—“I and my beloved are one”—he was crucified. Whereas, that is goal in the East. In the West the goal is to establish relationship. The aim is to establish a proper relationship between God and man.

Universal and Local Ideas.

 220px-Adolf_Bastian2

Adolf Bastian, (1826-1905), a German ethnologist and world traveler, recognized in the myths and ceremonial customs of mankind a significant number of essential themes and motifs that were apparently universal. He termed these Elementary Ideas. Bastian theorized that there is a general psychological unity of humankind that is responsible for these elementary ideas common to all peoples. He also noticed that the ideas always appeared in local forms with different inflections, which he termed folk or ethnic ideas.

Bastian proposed that cultural traits, folklore, myths, and beliefs of various ethnic groups originate within each group according to laws of cultural evolution and are essentially the same, merely differing in form because of geographic environment. Carl Jung’s archetypes of the unconscious are thought to have been derived from Bastian’s theory of elementary ideas.

So we have Elementary Ideas such as the world flood, virgin births, death and resurrection of saviors, creation myths of the many out of the one, and all of these themes have countless examples in stories from all over the world.

Joseph Campbell described his work as an attempt to tell humankind’s “One Great Story” — our saga of spiritual awakening and the subsequent development of the many different mythological perspectives that have shaped us throughout time. His central theme is that our seemingly disparate spiritual traditions are neither discrete nor unique, but rather each is simply an “ethnic manifestation” of one or another of those “elemental ideals” that have forever transfixed the human psyche.

One of the most challenging circumstances of the human experience is to gain a global perspective from which to understand our own local culture-forms and the conditioning that each of us has grown into. Our likes and dislikes, our moralities, ideas of freedom and liberty, questions of meaning all are conditioned by the time and place of our birth.

By examining and comparing the myths from religious traditions old and new, we can gain perspective about the universal functions that mythology serves, leading us to a greater understanding of the common elementary ideas that underlay our rituals. In our exploration of yoga, we can better understand what resonates with us in our practices, instead of blindly following instruction that does not serve us. It is my contention that although the myth of yoga’s historical development might be different from what is commonly believed, nonetheless the current practice of yoga in the west is a very important manifestation of mythic proportions.

Myths Provide Inspiration

All of the world’s cultures, from the prehistoric to the great world religions, have grown out of myths, which primarily serve to relate man to his environment. And what these myths have given has been inspiration and fascination.

We can classify the great mythic stories by time and place, and also by the distinction of literate and non-literate societies. Along geographical lines a primary consideration is that of the Old Stone Age tribes inhabiting the great animal plains of Europe, contrasted against the jungle dwellers of the tropical equatorial belts.

The Animal World: Humankind’s First Inspiration

The landscape of the Great Nomadic Hunt was of a spreading plain, bound by a circular horizon, with the sky of heaven above, filled with birds during the day, and with stars by night. The primary food supply was the grazing animal herd, and procuring this was the dangerous province of males within the community. We know that the ceremonial life of these peoples was largely addressed to this relationship and interaction with the animals, which they were continually killing and eating. Now in this situation of constant killing, the energies of the psyche must find a way to integrate and reconcile the emotions that arise from the interaction.

masked-dancers-qagyuhl

And so it was that for the early Homo-Sapiens, the animal world was the first inspiration, and the divinities were animal divinities. And when people are fascinated by something, they act like it, they play it—so in the rituals of the hunting people we find danced buffalo dances, deer dances, and the animals were the center of their ceremony. They were in covenant, so to say, with the animal world. And the notion was that through this covenant, the animals gave their bodies willingly to be eaten. Because only the body dies, the being comes back. If you return the blood of the animal to the earth, the life is in the blood. The earth is the mother of life, and the animal will be back next year. A fundamental hunting rite that is found throughout the world is this: If you want the animals to be back next year, the rituals must be performed.

Out of Death Comes Life: the Plant World as Inspiration

In contrast, the environment of jungle tribes is of a dense and thick foliage; massive trees; no horizon; no dome of the sky; filled with screeching birds and monkeys above, and slithering dangers on the tropical floor. In this world of the tropics, out of the rot and decay of the plant world–fresh green sprouts arise. The communities here witnessed that out of decay, there comes life. And this notion that out of death comes new birth becomes a very important thing in the tropical cultures.

What is seen is often imitated, so all along the entire equatorial belt of the earth, from Africa across and throughout India and Southeast Asia, to the Americas and jungles of Brazil, we can document what is to our sensibilities today very horrible patterns of rituals, human sacrifice—killing people, letting them rot, burying them—with the notion that out of this death there would come life.

Moreover, the influence of these primitive rites entered and inspired much of the mythology of the higher cultures, where it survives in myths and rituals of sacrifice and communion with which many of us are familiar today.

This idea we consider rather distasteful today, but I still recall my visit to the great Shiva Temple in Tanjore, India, where it has been documented that ritual human sacrifice was practiced until the 1800’s.

kali

By one human sacrifice with proper rites, the goddess remains gratified for one thousand years, and by the sacrifice of three men, one hundred thousand. Shiva, in his terrific aspect, as consort of the goddess, is appeased for three thousand years by an offering of human flesh…The wise would do well to add such flesh, free from hair, to their offerings of food.”

Hindu Kalika Purana circa 900CE

Recall once again the first function of mythology, namely to reconcile consciousness with the horrific nature of life eating life. In the Hindu deity of the Goddess Kali, we have a magnificent personification of exactly these energies. What most people do, however, is to concretize the symbol, instead of realizing that it is a metaphor. The primary value of a symbol such as Kali is to remind ourselves that these terrifying images refer to energies within us, not some frightful deity ‘out there somewhere’.

As Above, So Below: Planets and Stars as Inspiration

Individual in Myth

It is not generally understood that the ideals recently developed in the West of the importance of the individual, his rights of freedom and self-determination have no meaning whatsoever in the East, at least prior to our recent experience of globalization. They had no meaning for primitive man.

Liberty for the individual would have no meaning for the early civilizations of Egypt, China, India nor the Near East. As a matter of fact, our present ideals were not shared by most of the peoples of the entire Earth, and would be viewed as ways of life to be abhorred.

With the rise in the ancient Near East from 7000 BCE onwards of settled communities from where the arts of grain agriculture and animal domestication were developed, life became much more complex. As the communities gradually grew in size, highly specialized skills became increasingly important, so that by 3500 BCE we witnessed the first cities of the world, along with their clearly distinguished castes of governing orders, skilled craftsmen, traders and priests.

In a small hunting society you have a community of basically equivalent adults. Every adult is, in terms of that culture’s notion, a total human being. The only divisions are in terms of sex and age groups. But every man, every woman, controls what is necessary in order to be a total member of that society.

Whereas in the past, particularly in the hunting societies the individual was in possession of the entire culture form with very little division of labor, here there is an abrupt change not only in the community, but also in the arts. For here we see, also for the first time, pottery images of geometrical organizations of circular fields with a binding center symbol. Crosses and swastikas emerged as images reflecting the idea of separate parts unified into a whole. For in these cultures, each caste had a separate role to play, and each was but a part of the whole man.

And what were the customs of these Bronze Age cultures? Adherence and conformity to the group and caste was paramount.

Perhaps one the most revolutionary changes on Earth occurred in the fertile crescent of Iraq circa 3500 BCE. It was here that priests observed that the five visible planets, sun and moon all moved at mathematically determined rates through the stars. This is the great Bronze Age realization of the heavenly cosmic cycle, an idea that spread all over the globe and is still present today in the East. Preceding the later Biblical notion “On Earth as it is in Heaven”, the cycle of rising and falling in the sky was to be implemented in the social order on Earth as well.

One of the most amazing examples of what this mythology entailed was unearthed in the 1920’s by Sir Leonard Woolley, in the Royal Tombs of Ur. Known as the home of the Biblical Abraham, the temple compound of Ur was close to present day Basrah in southern Iraq. Woolley was in charge of the excavations, which were organized by the British Museum along with the University of Pennsylvania. Inside the burial site were Sumerian royals and tombs of great material wealth. The tombs revealed large paintings of the ancient culture, along with gold and silver jewelry, cups and other furnishings.

URGRAVE

The excavations discovered multiple graves—graves in which as many as sixty-four human beings had been buried together, all in courtly array. And they were not people in disorderly fashion—thrown into the grave and covered over. They were in rows, without any signs of struggle.

They were mostly people of the royal court. One of the most important graves was that of a Queen who was called Shub-ad, who was buried beside a man who was thought to have been her husband, A-bar-gi. The Queen’s entire court was buried with her, and the King’s entire court was buried with him, under hers. She had a court of twenty-five people buried with her and had been brought in on a sled that had been drawn by asses. Beneath was the court of the king and were buried some fifty people. He had been brought in on a wagon with oxen. All these were in the graves.

Both the animals and the humans had been buried in the graves alive. The ladies lying peacefully in rows, dressed in their finest regal clothes, with ribbons of silver and gold adorning their hair, and necklaces of lapis-lazuli and gold. A girl harpist who had been playing the harp had her skeleton hands still on the harp strings. And the harp itself was in the form of a bull’s body with a beautiful golden bull’s head and a lapis lazuli beard.

When the King died—or was killed, at a certain time in the movement of the planets when the Moon goes down, and the planet Venus along with the Moon, that was the end of an eon—the King and his entire court walked into the grave. They were playing a game; just as the hunters were imitating animals, just as the planting people were imitating plants, so the high civilizations began with princely, aristocratic little groups imitating the stars to the deaths, going all the way. The whole court, at the end of an eon, went in the grave so that another court could come. We find similar burials in every one of the ancient cultures; from Egypt to the early Chinese and India—we have graves with as many as 800 people buried in them.

So what is the point of all this? Just where, I must ask, within societies such as these, is the individual that we so cherish today? The answer is that in these ancient worlds there is no such thing as an individual life, but only a great cosmic law by which all life is governed. Known to the Egyptians as Maat, to the Chinese as Tao, and in India, Dharma, the great point in these early Bronze Age mythologies is that of both a heavenly and earthly social cosmic order, to which each individual must submit.

The neighbors now were the stars and the planets, and this still lives with us in our religions today. All of our religions have inherited this motif from the old Babylonian world. It went out with the higher civilizations to India, to China, even across the Pacific to Mexico and Peru. And you see these great towers—these great temple towers that represent the mountain of the world—and it’s the axis of the world around which the world turns, as it does around the pole star. The whole world and society and the individual in it are like the planets moving in a great course.

The Mythology for Today

So in summary we can observe a fundamental difference in orientation between the hunting and agricultural societies. The former which is represented by the European spirit accents the virtues of individual judgment and independent excellence. The latter communities from the Near East emphasized the value of the group, and the importance of conformity. The myths have evolved as games and stories, first from animal neighbors then to the plant world, and then to the songs of the planets and stars. From societies bound by limited horizons of the forest and plains, we now have broken through from such limitations, and the myths of today must speak of new experiences.

With the rapid advances in science and technology, our understanding of the nature of the universe has changed radically, and the old cosmologies are in disrepute. The myths of the past do not serve us and are broken. In societies with bounded horizons, it is customary to love your clan and to project our aggressions outside onto the “others”. However, now on our planet all dividing horizons have been shattered. We all live on one planet which is home for us all.

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What you might ask, does all of this have to do with our practice of yoga? This will have to wait, for the most part, until Part 3. I hope that I have provided some clues, and opportunities of reflection for you, so that you might examine why you practice yoga, and how your own life in deepened and enriched. I am observing that there is a transition underway in yoga, and people are moving away from a strictly posture-based focus towards a concern with a deeper transformation of awareness.

It seems that the rigid authoritative style of teaching is waning, and that a new creativity is blossoming in yoga studios around the world. I would like to solicit from you, dear readers, your assistance. In future installments of this series I hope to offer glimpses of inspiring practices that you have experienced. I would appreciate hearing from you with stories or introductions to teachers and practices that you hold dear.

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The universe is no longer the little circle. It is now boundless; there is no protective horizon of the universe where man may feel comfortable. We don’t know what the universe is, where it is, what it is, what we are, what meanings there are—that’s all gone. We can no longer say love is to be held at home, and hate projected abroad.

In other words, the whole mythological structure can no longer work in terms of this dualism between in-group and out-group—there is no horizon there either. And with the individual, as Jung has said—and this is one of his great statement’s—’The individual is no longer to identify himself with the archetypes of the group.’

This is a totally different notion—a much more complicated one about the individual and his relationship to mankind than anything mythology has had to face before. And this is the problem, it seems to me, that our clergy, and professors, and moralists have faced: not working to defend disintegrating mythologies, but working to find how the imageries that have supported men in the past can be applied to this quite new, quite wonderful, quite adventurous enterprise of today.”

Joseph Campbell




Nauli Yoga

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Here is one of my favorite photos. You are looking at the nephew of Bishnu Ghosh practicing abdominal isolation.  This photo and the one below are taken from Ghosh and Sengupta’s 1934 Book entitled “Muscle Control”. The lower photo describes Ghosh’s instructions for the practice.

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Here is another interesting photo of a student of European strongman ‘Maxick’, taken from a book published circa 1910, which details the “Maxalding” system. This is an exercise system of muscle control using a form of isometrics. Like the ‘dynamic tension‘ system of Charles Atlas and those of others, Maxalding did not use weights. Where the other systems concentrated on muscle development, Maxalding taught muscle control, concentration and will power. Some exercises of Maxalding, involving isolating the muscles of the abdominal region, are similar to the yoga exercise called nauli.

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Maxick, whose real name was Max Sick, was born in Austria in 1882 and moved to Britain in 1909, where he met Monte Saldo, who was apprenticed to the great Eugen Sandow in 1897. The pair collaborated on several books in the genre.

What is curiously apparent is the identical practice of abdominal isolation, which raises the question from whom did Bishnu Ghosh learn the technique? We know that the influence of Eugen Sandow was quite strong in the early 1900’s in India, and that there was a regular flow of physical culture books and ideas from Europe into India during that time.

Nauli is an exercise of the classical Hatha Yoga but is not taught often in yoga schools. Considered a difficult exercise, nauli can be learned only with perseverance and patience. It is described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika as follows:

HYP 2:33,34 – “Lean forward, protrude the abdomen and rotate (the muscles) from right to left with speed. This is called nauli by the siddhas. Nauli is foremost among the Hatha Yoga practices. It kindles the digestive fire, removing indigestion, sluggish digestion, and all disorders of the doshas, and brings about happiness.”

Is nauli as described in the HYP the same or similar to the abdominal isolation techniques of Maxick and Ghosh?

Before Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar, we had Krishnamacharya. Before Krishnamacharya’s early 1930’s teaching at the Palace, we had Bishnu Ghosh.  But before baby Bishnu we had his older brother Paramahansa Yogananda, who was a central figure in the incredibly formative period in the spread of Yoga to the West. In fact, after Vivekananda’s visit to America in 1893, and literally a generation before the Hatha teachings of Krishnamacharya, Yogananda was not only spreading his primary teaching of Kriya yoga meditation to the West, but as part of the physical culture renaissance going on around the world, in 1916 he developed his own system of bodily exercise he termed “Energization Exercises”. Included in his set of 38 exercises is a modified easy version of the abdominal technique.

During the year before Yogananda published his exercises, his childhood friend and brother disciple Swami Satyananda stated that “ a certain book fell into the hands of Yogananda.”  The book was titled “My System” by the Danish gymnastics educator Jorgen Muller. Satyananda goes on to say that “Yogananda became very excited reading the book which discussed how to build muscles through the concentration of the mind.”

So what can we reasonably conclude from this? While it is difficult to say with certainty the exact origins of these techniques, I would suggest that there is a natural ebb and flow to the evolution of humanity, and we organically take bits and pieces of wisdom and practice from many sources, adding our own multicolor threads to life’s weaving… into the divine tapestry that we behold today.

Who can say, but really I just like the photos…

Huckleberry

15,000 years ago if not earlier, a great migration of humans traveled from Central Asia through Siberia, and whether by ocean or land bridge moved across the Bering Straight into present day Alaska. From here these First Americans established coastal communities South to what is now Oregon and Washington. The forests and waters of the Pacific Northwest were rich in resources for these hunter-gatherers, and over the millennia the tribes ventured further south and east as they explored new vistas.

Now it is interesting to understand the psychology and sociology of tribes who hunt and forage for their subsistence, which is entirely different from agricultural based societies. Below we see a magnificent photograph of dancers from the Qagyuhl Tribe in British Columbia. The famed photographer Edward Curtis captured this in 1914.

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For Shamanic hunting cultures who are killing and eating animals all the time, a spiritual reconciliation takes center stage in the ritual life of the clan. The animals they encountered are personified as divinities, and here we can see a glorious display of their ‘Winter Dance”. Not only animals, but all the food procured for the tribe is viewed as sacred gifts from the Creator, and these cultures have beautifully developed aesthetic rituals that are central activities around which the life of the people revolved.

In a world of great natural bounty, the Northwest Coastal Peoples were able to develop comfortable and sophisticated societies marked by elaborate ceremonial life and spectacular art created to celebrate the history and lineage of their clans and their relationship to the universe.

Tragically, the European settlers’ invasion into the Americas completed decimated these First Peoples, and most of the tribes are extinct. However, some of the old ways are still honored and respected, and here is a tale of one such ritual in which we recently participated.

The Wild Huckleberry

Continuing our story, some of the coastal dwellers explored the Columbia River, and settled East of the Cascade Mountains into what is today called the Columbia Plateau. Our home in Hood River is centrally located along the Columbia River, with Mount Adams to the North and Mount Hood to the South. Here live the Warm Springs, Umatilla and Yakama Nations, and their economies were based on fishing, hunting, gathering, and inter-tribal trading of such items as fish products, baskets, dogs and horses. Below is a photograph of some Yakama Tribal members in attendance at a gathering in 1903.

FairIndians 1903

It is important to understand that these cultures were semi-nomadic and the seasons drew them to various parts of the plateau. In the winter, people lived along interior rivers in villages of tule-mat lodges, and subsisted on dried foods. In early March they trekked to root grounds and camped with neighboring Indians. In May salmon began to travel up the Columbia River, and the Yakama moved to the lower Columbia to catch and preserve the fish. In the fall they went into the Cascade Mountains to pick berries and hunt, while drying their food for the winter.

In accordance with a profound connectedness these people felt to their environment, they gave thanks for their foods through spiritual ceremonies.

The Huckleberry regions west of Mount Adams in South-Central Washington have long been the center of ceremony for many native tribes, including the Sahaptin language speakers who lived all along the Columbia River and its tributaries. Before the autumn harvest season select people with special knowledge and skill were chosen for the first gathering of berries. Ceremonial leaders prayed and fasted to ensure the tribe’s success during harvest. After the group returned, a feast and ritual was held after which the rest of the tribal families would travel to the traditional berry fields where they would stay until early October. Many tribes of the mid-Columbia would gather at the Sawtooth Berry Fields where they could relax and visit with friends and relatives of other tribes before the fall salmon fishing season began.

A Methodist missionary described the 1843 berry season as “one great holy-day for the Indians, who preferred to spend their summer Sundays in the meadows of ‘Indian Heaven’ instead of listening to sermons that promised a Christian paradise”.

Northwest tribes made special combs of wood or salmon backbones to strip huckleberries off the bushes. They dried the berries in the sun or smoked them and then mashed them into cakes and wrapped these in leaves or bark for storage.

In 1868, Robert Brown wrote that great numbers of huckleberry cakes were drying on roofs and platforms “supervised by some ancient hag, whose hands and arms are dyed pink with them”. Women or their families often “owned” the berry grounds, and all the fields were named with trails connecting them.

Much to the dismay of the early missionaries, Henry Brewer of the Mount Adams Mission in Washington reported that… “the absence of our Indian converts so long a time during the berry season being surrounded as they are by every possible bad example, and separated from the watchful care of their teachers, in many cases proves very injurious to their piety.

Unfortunately, the lack of understanding and respect for the sacred traditions of another culture, especially one that is strange and different from our own, is still present with us even today.

For these tribes, the huckleberry was seen as containing great power. Tribal members have a special word for the huckleberry in the Sahaptin language. The word for huckleberry is “Wiwnu”, and means the “chief” of all the berries.

We have communion with God with the huckleberry like the white man uses wine”.

Yakama Tribal Member

Other oral traditions state that the huckleberries “know everything; they do nothing wrong”. The Sahaptin tribes believe that as long tribal members showed respect for Wiwnu, giving thanks for this sacred food while taking only what was needed, that the berries would return each year to provide them with more food.

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Mount Adams (Pahto) as seen from the Berry Fields (author 2014)

To thank the Creator for these foods the tribes had “First Foods” feasts. These ceremonies were held throughout the year before the food for that season was to be harvested. Although each food had its own first foods ceremony, all of the first foods were served at each feast. Foods are always served in the same order. They include foods traditionally considered  “men’s foods” (water, salmon, and deer), followed by traditionally “women’s foods.” (cous-roots, and huckleberry) The foods are served in this order because it represents the order of the harvest of these foods. During the late summer, the first foods feast for huckleberry is held. The ritual value can be seen through the use of these same foods across many generations. These foods were important enough to be included in the 1855 treaties for protection, and are still an integral part of many of the tribes’ spiritual and cultural ceremonies today.

Before returning to the river valleys for the winter, Yakama women periodically set fire to the sub-alpine meadows to prevent the growth of trees. The precise methods and patterns of aboriginal burning remain poorly understood, but ethnographic research has clearly documented the practice. In addition to creating open areas conducive to early successional plants like huckleberry, intentional burning and natural fires produced zones of increased natural productivity that drew deer and elk within range and furnished fresh pasture for Indian horses. Without regular burning, the berry fields would gradually shrink as forest reclaimed the clearings. Setting fire to the meadows thus became one of the Yakama’s obligations to Wiwnu. Elder Hazel Miller still remembers the wisdom of her ancestors. “God told people to burn the forest and the huckleberries would grow,” she declared, “so people have been doing this ever since. This is what my old people told me.”

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Huckleberries gathered 2014

There is something magical that takes place when you get to know your own ‘holy land’. You don’t need to travel to India or Israel. Your particular holy land is right in your own backyard, and it is ultimately right within your own heart. Wherever you find yourself, take time to slow down and get to know your own special place. Perhaps you live by the ocean and can attune yourself with the waves and the Presence. Or sow a seed, and watch the majesty of life and the Mystery unfold.

There are countless ways to experience the Awe and Wonder, and to practice ritual in your life. Living in Hood River, Oregon, our huckleberry harvest reminded us that these ceremonies have been going on for thousands of years, and it is good to bring awareness to the simple yet profound fact that this divine creation provides such generous bounty that sustains us all.

For this I am grateful and give thanks.

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The Myth of Yoga

 

Myth is one of those wonderful words that most people don’t completely understand. For most, a myth is a lie. It is a story that did not actually take place, a legend or fable. When we hear the word myth today, it often has a negative connotation, as in “Those weapons of mass destruction were a myth”.

Used in this sense, and with our title in mind, I will venture to say that commonplace presumptions of the history of yoga are in fact a myth.

Another way to understand the word myth is that it is synonymous with the word religion. Myths are the stories that inspire and bind together civilizations. Myths ultimately spring from deep within us, and the rituals associated with myth are vehicles which enable us to experience a connection between ourselves and the Mystery of life.

“It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.” -Joseph Campbell

Used in this sense, again I will say that yoga truly is a myth.

Myths are properly understood and experienced as metaphors which relate to your own psyche, and the surest way to destroy the spiritual import of religion is to insist that the “myth-stories” are to be interpreted as historical facts. When you imagine that the scriptures are to be understood literally, and then discover that many of the stories could not possibly have occurred as factual history, the result is often doubt, loss of faith and alienation. But if we read the stories in other ways they can open us to deep wisdom.

With these ideas in mind, let us explore the Myth of Yoga.

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Part 1. Myth as Lie.

Yoga’s global appeal often rests on the assumption that the practice of āsana (postures) constituted a central and ancient component of Indian religious traditions. Supposedly intuited by wise enlightened sages during deep meditation and passed on to disciples down lineages spanning millenniums it is thought to embody a method for not only physical well being, but a path to enlightenment.

Myth #1: Hatha Yoga comes from the Vedas.

Coming from ancient India, many people would trace yoga to the earliest of Hindu scriptures, the Vedas. Now for those of you who are unfamiliar with yoga and Hinduism, The Vedas (Sanskrit véda वेद, “knowledge”) are a large body of religious texts originating in India circa 1500 BCE. Composed in Sanskrit, the texts are the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. The Vedas are described as apauruṣeya (“not of human agency”). They are supposed to have been directly revealed by God, and thus are called śruti (“what is heard”), distinguishing them from other religious texts, which are called smṛti (“what is remembered”). In Hindu tradition, the creation of the Vedas is credited to Brahma, God as creator.

The idea of divine revelation is key to our discussion in Part 2: Myth as Truth where we discuss the concepts of authority and the power of lineage. Disregarding for now these thorny issues, a reading of the Vedas with the history of yoga in mind presents us with certain facts. The word “yoga” appears only a handful of times in the Rig Veda, in its general context of joining, or yoking, one thing to another, with no concrete evidence of a deeper, symbolic, meaning. In fact, most of the Vedas deal with the rules for sacrifice and ritual ceremony, as ways to propitiate and seek favor of the gods.

Yoga as the practice of postures is not mentioned in the Vedas.

In fact, there is very little old textual evidence from which we can see yoga as posture-based at all:

The Brahmanas (900BCE-600BCE) which are later commentaries on the Vedas describe austerity practicing ascetics (muni). No Hatha Yoga there.

The Katha Upanishad (300BCE) contains some mention of the word yoga in the context of Yama (God of Death) speaking of it as a means to leave behind joy and sorrow and overcome death itself.
Postures? No…

The Svetasvaatara Upanishad (300BCE) outlines an upright seated body posture– the mind is brought under control by restraint of the breath.

The Maitri Upanishad (one of the last) describes a six-fold yoga method similar to the later Patañjali Yoga Sutras, however specific mention of āsana is missing.

In the Bhagavad Gita within the Mahabharata (200BCE-500CE) there are mentioned 3 Paths of yoga; Karma, Bhakti, Jnana. While mention in made to meditation and pranayama breath control, specific mention of postures is absent.

It is not until much later that āsana postures are explicitly documented.

Medieval History:
The Saiva Tantras form the basis of the teachings of hatha yoga which we can date from the 13th to the 18th centuries. Here are the earliest of the well-known texts:

Goraksa Sataka 13th CE?
Siva Samhita 15th CE
HathaYogaPradipika (HYP)15th -16th CE
Gheranda Samhita (Ghs)17th -18th CE

In these texts, hatha yoga is concerned with the transmutation of the human body into a vessel immune from mortal decay. There are various bodily purifications prescribed, such as cleansing the stomach by swallowing strips of cloth, and neti, the cleaning of the nasal passages. Or for those with more exotic inclinations, there is Sahajoli or Amaroli mudras, where ejaculation takes place during intercourse and then the conjoined male and female sexual fluids are drawn back up through the penis. These mudras were actually purged from the Siva Samhita and banned. While the The HYP outlines 15 āsanas, and the Ghs describes 32, the mainstay of yoga practice in these times is pranayama. What is remarkable about the practices outlined here is how different they are from our modern day yoga in the West.

Only a small of number of postures figured within medieval haṭha yoga traditions. Standing postures, for instance, which constitute a large part of today’s popular yoga repertoire, were absent. Moreover, the practice and uses of postures were conceived very differently from what we find in today’s modern yoga studios. Certain seated meditation postures such as padmāsana and siddhāsana are mentioned, but there is little evidence of postures ever having played a significant part in Indian yoga traditions.

Haṭha yoga started waning in the 18th century when the British arrived. Experiencing the yogin’s control over trade routes in North India as an economic and political threat, the British increasingly policed their activities and banned their practices. As a result, haṭha yogins had to seek an alternative livelihood in “yogic showmanship,” becoming objects of scorn for many sections of Hindu society.

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But on the historical timeline we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to next major text on yoga as it appears, the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali.

Myth #2: Patañjali & The Yoga Sutras.

The story of Patañjali illustrates one of the central problems in the study of comparative religion, namely trying to separate ‘fact from fiction’ in order to arrive at an understanding of the material. In this case, the deeper one explores to discover the facts, the more fiction is revealed. From my mythic perspective, of course, that is a good thing!

As yogis in the West, we have all heard of the sage Patañjali, often known as the “Father of Yoga”. I remember visiting the massive Shiva Nataraj Temple complex at Chidambaram in South India years ago. Legend has it that here he lived and composed the Sutras. Most of the many Hatha schools of today claim Patañjali as a root source of their teachings and practices. It would therefore be expected that a reading of his work might reveal the posture-based yoga we are searching for.

The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali are 196 Indian stanzas that constitute the foundational text of Yoga. In it the author describes adherence to eight “limbs” or steps to quiet one’s mind and achieve kaivalya or liberation. Of the eight limbs, the 3rd is āsana, which in the Yoga Sutras are basic postures which are practiced to allow one to sit steady, comfortable and undisturbed in meditation. Absent are the flowing dynamic postures we typically see today in a western yoga studio.

We can get a good sense of the work from the second Sutra in chapter 1, where Patañjali has defined yoga as “Yogascitta vritti nirodhah” translated as “Yoga is the intentional stopping of the spontaneous activity of the mind stuff.”

And how do we intentionally stop the spontaneous activity? Is it through a dynamic flow of movement? No, the clear message of Patañjali is an emphasis on following the 8 steps that lead the student from moral actions to control of the life energies through pranayama, followed by concentration, meditation and samadhi.  Asana is only used for the purpose of preparing the body to be able to sit comfortably in meditation.

While Patañjali is a rather important historical figure, his dates are unknown, estimated to be from 400BCE to 400CE, quite a wide period of time. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of his story is the circumstance of his birth, which I relate below as described by BKS Iyengar:

“Shortly before Patañjali was born, Vishnu was seated on his serpent, Adisesa. Vishnu was so captivated by the enchanting dance of Lord Siva that he started to vibrate to its rhythm. The vibration made him heavier and heavier, causing Adisesa to nearly collapse. When the dance was over, the weight was lifted. Adisesa, mesmerized by this dramatic change, expressed to Visnu that he wanted to learn to dance and Visnu predicted that Lord Siva would bless him for his understanding and devotion to the dance. Adisesa began thinking about who his mother would be. Simultaneously, Gonika, a devoted yogini, was praying for a worthy son to whom she would pass along her knowledge and understanding of yoga. Adisesa then fell from heaven in the form of a little snake into the upturned palms of Gonika, destined to perpetuate the teachings of yoga on earth. The story offers insight to the meaning of the name Patañjali. “pata” translates to falling, and “anjali” meaning offering or folded hands in prayer.”

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So there you have it, the dude is a snake.

How are we to understand this story? Is Patañjali literally a divine snake? I am reminded of another wise serpent speaking with Eve in another garden in ages past. Are we to believe the story as a statement of historical fact? I would once again caution that to read this story as you would the daily newspaper of facts would be to miss the important message.

One clear conclusion regarding Patañjali is that the Yoga of his Sutras is far different from our posture-based practices of today.

Myth #3: Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga Yoga & Yoga Kurunta.

Here is an example of a more contemporary yoga lineage, that of Ashtanga Yoga and Pattabhi Jois. According to this tradition, Ashtanga Yoga is a system of yoga recorded by the sage Vamana Rishi in the Yoga Korunta, an ancient manuscript “said to contain lists of many different groupings of āsanas, as well as highly original teachings on vinyasa, drishti, bandhas, mudras, and philosophy” (Jois 2002). The text of the Yoga Korunta “was imparted to Sri T. Krishnamacharya in the early 1900’s by his Guru Rama Mohan Brahmachari, and was later passed down to Pattabhi Jois during the duration of his studies with Krishnamacharya, beginning in 1927.” Since 1948, Pattabhi Jois taught Ashtanga yoga from his yoga shala, the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute. As stated on the Jois website,

The “Yoga Korunta” is attributed to the sage Vamana Rishi. It is said that he was born when Ashtanga yoga was almost forgotten, and a wise man was needed to bring it back to mankind. Vamana Rishi incarnated himself specifically for this task. Since he was already in the womb, he himself had no idea of Ashtanga Yoga. Thus he meditated on Vishnu, so that he could help him. So it happened that Vishnu taught the Ashtanga Yoga system to him in the womb. After nine months had passed, Vamana had not yet been through the entire curriculum. According to legend, he refused to be born until he had finished his studies of Ashtanga yoga”.

Pattabhi Jois claimed that the exact stages of the sequences, as taught by his guru, are enumerated in the Vedas. In an interview in 2005, he also insisted that the text completely describes all the āsanas of the sequences and speaks of nothing other than the Ashtanga system. Unfortunately, the manuscript written on palm leaves was eaten by ants, thereby destroyed, so the veracity of the claims can never be proven. Surprisingly the text was not transcribed by Pattabhi Jois or anyone else. Remarkably the text is not even partially recorded in either of Krishnamacharya’s books of this period— Yoga Makaranda (1935) and Yoga Sanagalu (c. 1941).

What are we to make of the claims of Jois regarding the Yoga Kurunta? While appreciative of the influence Jois’ Ashtanga has had in the West, the claim of lineage from ancient Rishis does not add to the story, at least in my view. Reference to an ancient authority thereby providing legitimacy is a very common practice of humans, and can be quite seductive.

There has been exhaustive research around the history of Krishnamacharya and the development of yoga during his tenure at the Jaganmohan Palace beginning in 1933. Instead of scrutinizing the minutia and practices from which not only Jois but also Iyengar developed their work as young men, I will simply state that this was an important formative time in the creation of modern hatha yoga, with many influences from many different quarters. The practices that resulted were not from reading the words on a palm leaf from a Rishi that intuited them from the gods, but rather from trans-cultural diffusion.

Gymnastics, military exercises, and all manner of Western sports and games were a major part of the daily life of the students at Jaganmohan Palace where Krishnamacharya taught amidst many other exercise teachers. From the administrative records of the Palace and yogasala in 1933, and on oral and written testimonies of the surviving students from those years the conclusion is that Krishnamacharya’s system, which was to become the basis of so many forms of contemporary athletic yoga, is a synthesis of several methods of physical training that fall well outside any definition of yoga.

A common refrain among the first and second generation students of Krishnamacharya whom have been interviewed, as well as others who knew him during his Mysore days, is the association of his teaching with the circus. For example, the bodybuilding and gymnastics teacher Anant Rao, who for several years shared a wing of the Jaganmohan Palace with Krishnamacharya, feels that the latter was “teaching circus tricks and calling it yoga”.

Indeed, the association of circus contortions with yoga is not a far fetched statement. The postures have a historical precedent, not only in the East but in the West. Here we see the famous “Posture Masters”, a British troupe of Issac Fawkes. The photo below is a detail from “Faux the Conjuror’s Booth, Bartholomew Fair”, which was popular theater in London’s James Street in the early 1700’s.

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Another student, T.R.S. Sharma affirms that during the yoga classes, Krishnamacharya was innovating all the time in response to his students. He would make up variations of the postures when he saw that some of his students could do them easily. “Try this, try putting this here, and this here.” He was inventing and innovating. Krishnamacharya never emphasized a particular order of poses, there was nothing sacrosanct about observing order with him. He would tell me “practice as many as you can.” Below is a photo of the young Sharma in front of the Palace perfoming virancyāsana.

ImageThis idea of innovation is very important and also a focus of our discussion in Part 2.

Here are some other pictures which reveal the similarities of postures and contortion. The photos on the left are from American Thomas Dwight’s “Anatomy of a Contortionist,” Scribner’s Magazine April 1889, and those on the right taken from B.K.S Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, 1966.

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What is important for our purposes however, is that the development of yoga during these years was a time of creative exploration. Instead of blindly following the script of instructions etched in stone, or palm leaves as the case may be, a new expression responsive to the individual and environment is being realized. As current teacher Dharma Mittra has expressed, new postures are being created all the time.

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The Origins of Modern Yoga: A Global Tale of Creativity.

I recall my amazement reading Mark Singleton’s book entitled “Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice”, which presents us with perhaps the best piece of historical research that challenges many of the common assumptions about the evolution of modern yoga practice.

He writes that years ago while in the Cambridge University library he read a book containing pictures of men and women in familiar postures. Here was Warrior Pose; there was Downward Dog. On one page Headstand; the next Handstand—everything you might expect to find in a manual of yoga āsana. But this was not a yoga book. It was a text describing an early 20th-century Danish system of dynamic exercise called Primitive Gymnastics.

To quote Singleton,
“Standing in front of my yoga students that evening, I reflected on my discovery. What did it mean that many of the poses I was teaching were identical to those developed by a Scandinavian gymnastics teacher less than a century ago? This gymnast had not been to India and had never received any teaching in āsana. And yet his system, with its five-count format, its abdominal “locks,” and its dynamic jumps in and out of those oh-so-familiar postures, looked uncannily like the vinyasa yoga system I knew so well.”

He continues,
“I learned that the Danish system was an offshoot of a 19th-century Scandinavian gymnastics tradition that had revolutionized the way Europeans exercised. Systems based on the Scandinavian model sprang up throughout Europe and became the basis for physical training in armies, navies, and many schools. These systems also found their way to India. In the 1920s, according to a survey taken by the Indian YMCA, Primitive Gymnastics was one of the most popular forms of exercise in the whole subcontinent, second only to the original Swedish gymnastics developed by P.H. Ling.”

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Now this is not to say that the modern yoga of today has evolved exclusively from a system of European gymnastics, but the evidence does lead one away from the story of an Indian yoga heritage unbroken from time immemorial.

So for the curious, what are the historical facts that can be ascertained regarding yoga? We can see that yoga was transformed into a form of postural practice only over the past century or so. Singleton shows how, far from having developed as a purely indigenous Indian practice, contemporary yoga evolved under the influence of various Western physical exercise practices which had gained popularity in India under British colonial rule. These included a blend of numerous influences, including the Scandinavian gymnastics systems, European and American bodybuilding regimes inspired by Eugen Sandow (1867-1925), and the physical education programs of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Modern yoga was also shaped by Hindu nationalist aspirations during the early 1900’s for a uniquely Indian form of exercise in response to British influences.

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In fact, hardly a century ago yogic postures were still widely repudiated as unseemly bodily contortions and strange practices often associated with ash-smeared, hashish-smoking ascetics who were shunned by Indian society at large. When Vivekananda (1863-1902) formulated his groundbreaking Raja Yoga for an international audience in the 1890s, it was a teaching in which postural yoga found no place. Vivekananda and other early exponents of modern yoga were careful to disassociate themselves from such physical practices – which they viewed as a form of spiritual degradation rather than a spiritual aid.

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This view was shared by Paramahansa Yogananda, author of the spiritual classic “Autobiography of a Yogi”, as hatha yoga is noticeably absent from his teachings. His younger brother Bishnu Ghosh however, (pictured above in his 1930 book “Muscle Control”) was an acclaimed physical culturist of his day, and we can see how he was influenced by the bodybuilding and showmanship prevalent in India during the early 1900’s. This lineage was passed down from Bishnu to disciple Bikram Choudhury, who we all know for his charismatic “Bikram Hot Yoga”.

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The early 1900’s was a time of great experimentation in physical exercise programs in India, and a system called Primitive Gymnastics, developed by the Dane Niels Bukh (1880–1950), was one such European system that came to occupy a central position in the Indian physical education scene.

Through the first decades of the twentieth century, Ling’s dominant system was increasingly deemed insufficient for creating able-bodied men and a more vigorous Danish gymnastics gained popularity. In 1906, Danish gymnastics even became part of the official British army training program. Bukh’s system, which “emphasized continuity of movement, rhythmic exercise, and intensive stretching to seek elasticity, flexibility, and freedom”, attained such popularity from the early 1920s onward that by 1930, the YMCA would rank it as second only to Ling in terms of “full national approval or . . . general recognition” among exercise regimes in India.

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At least twenty-eight of the exercises in the first edition of Bukh’s manual are strikingly similar (often identical) to yoga postures occurring in Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga sequence or in Iyengar’s Light on Yoga (Iyengar 1966). Not only do Bukh’s positions suggest modern yoga postures but the linking movements between them are reminiscent of the jumping sequences of Ashtanga Vinyasa.

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Myth #4: Yoga Traditions are almost exclusively the province of men.

Until very recently, when we consider the leading yoga teachers over the last century, the majority of names exclude women. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois and Bikram come to mind. The truth is we have forgotten that from the 1800’s onwards, women not only participated in “yoga-style” exercise, but in many cases women were at the center of the new creative movements that developed what we would now recognize as hatha yoga, and remarkably they did this independently of Indian traditions.

Over 140 years ago in New York City there was a young American woman by the name of Genevieve Stebbins who was part of a new creative movement that synthesized elements of American Transcendentalism and Christian Science, Swedish gymnastics, and “muscle control” techniques in a range of teachings especially adapted for Western audiences. Stebbins began working with a student of the Frenchman Francois Delsarte (1811-1871), whose “System of Expression” was also the precursor to American modern dance and influenced such icons as Isador Duncan and Ruth St. Denis.

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Stebbins’s “American Delsartean Training Regimen” included relaxation exercises, posture work and “harmonic poise”, breathing exercises, and “exercises for freedom of joints and spine” and thus closely resembles the elements of a standard yoga class in the West. Stebbins’s 1898 book “The Genevieve Stebbins System of Physical Training” includes dance-like flows and transitions between poses that are prototypical of the kind of “flow yoga” classes popular today. Prominent contemporary American yoga teacher Shiva Rea’s teachings of āsana and dance might well be considered a descendent of Stebbins’s forms.

Stebbins was also a member of the group Church of Light, “an order of practical occultism” and she brought these esoteric influences and Ling gymnastics to bear on her interpretation of Delsartism. Her presentation to American audiences started a veritable Delsarte craze, and took the country by storm. Special clothes for practicing “Delsarte” were being sold. You could purchase Delsarte shoes and items for the home. Designers could come to help you decorate your home, and plan your wardrobe for the best and most harmonious “Delsartian” aesthetic. Nearly every town in the country had a Delsarte club.

It seems eerily similar to the current yoga fad in the West today where the accoutrements of sticky mats, Yogi toes and the latest “Lulu Fashion” seem to be essential to the practice!

ImageAnother American woman, the interesting Cajzoran Ali, as set out in her “Divine Posture Influence upon Endocrine Glands” of 1928, locates the key to the ultimate spiritual truth of yoga in the 7 ‘ductless glands’ of the body. Her course of posture training and “Breath Culture” is designed to align the 7 chakra seals and thereby to bring one into harmony with the God who is “individualized within you”. Above is an illustration of her work, which seems quite current with yoga-styles of today.

ImageAnother important innovator in the field of “harmonial gymnastics” was Dublin-born Mollie Bagot Stack, founder of perhaps the most influential of women’s gymnastic organizations in pre-WWII Britain, the Women’s League of Health and Beauty. Stack developed a keen interest in gymnastic and hygiene regimes for women from about 1907 onward, and she began teaching her methods in London from 1920. Even thought they were not called “yoga,” they often resemble today’s āsana forms quite closely.

What seems clear is that the breathing, stretching, and relaxation classes attended every week by thousands of present day practitioners as YOGA are almost the same spiritualized gymnastics undertaken by their grandmothers and great-grandmothers in the early1900s! There can be no doubt that Stack’s programs closely mirror the creative forms of many of today’s “hatha yoga” classes.

The co-holder of the title “Best Figure in the British Isles [1930],” Miss Adonia Wallace, to take another example, claimed to have acquired her prize-winning physique through extreme stretching exercises, such as are pictured. These “exercises” are instantly recognizable as advanced postures of modern yoga.

ImageIt appears then, that women during the 1930s commonly engaged in much the same forms of bodily activity that they do today under the name of yoga and that stretching itself has a popular history of its own in the West, entirely independent of yoga. These women, and others like them, promoted modes of “spiritual stretching” and deep breathing that endure today as “yoga.”

To bring the beginning of our exploration to a close, it seems reasonable to state that the evidence is convincing that many of the commonplace presumptions of the history of yoga are in fact a “myth”. It does appear that modern yoga āsana is the synthesis of exercise elements from many diverse traditions gathered from around the world.

As we mentioned in the beginning, myth has several meanings. While history suggests that yoga’s origins might actually be different from commonplace perceptions, our current ritual yoga practices can also be seen as a significant new mythic expression–something the world has never before seen. This we will explore in Part 2: Myth as Truth.

We began with a Joseph Campbell quote, and so shall we end…

“The function of ritual is to give form to human life, not in the way of a mere surface arrangement, but in depth. Myths are the mental supports of rites; rites, the physical enactments of myths.”

 

 

 

 

 

When Sperm Could Fly! -Vyasa & The Mahabharata*

Before we embark upon the Myth of Yoga, since it is the height of Spring in the Pacific Northwest, let us take a pastoral interlude and enjoy one of the most incredible stories ever told. The flowers are bursting open, the birds and the bees are flying with palpable frenzy as they sense the nectar all around.

Winter has fled, and the Resurrection is upon us.

In the Golden Age of India there was written one of humanity’s masterpiece epic tales, that of the Mahabharata. 8 times the length of the Illiad and Odyssey combined, the stories span generations, culminating in the classic recounting of Lord Krishna and the battle of Kurukshetra.

I remember the first time I read the opening chapters of Vyasa’s work, and my reaction was that of complete disbelief. I had to read the tale again and again, to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, and also to comprehend the subtlety and symbolism.

For you see, as a Westerner I was approaching the Mahabharata as a somewhat factual history of India, with appreciation for its religious teachings regarding Hinduism’s most beloved avatar, Bhagavan Sri Krishna. My reference point was the same as opening the Holy Bible, where I would read the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis, to gain understanding of the religious history of the Judeo-Christian faith.

But you must realize that Myths are properly understood and experienced as metaphors which relate to your own psyche, and do not primarily refer to something that happened someplace a long time ago. The surest way to destroy the spiritual import of religion is to insist that the myth stories are to be interpreted as historical facts. When you force yourself to believe that the Bible, Gita or Koran is to be interpreted literally, and then you are faced with the impossibility of the stories having occurred as historical facts, the result is often doubt, loss of faith and alienation.

Aaahh, but I get ahead of myself. Here is the tale, as told by Joseph Campbell:

When Sperm Could Fly! -Vyasa and the Mahabharata

The chief mythological document of the Indian Golden Age is the epic Mahabharata, much of the material of which is indefinitely old, perhaps ante 400 B.C., but of which the final style and tone are rather of c. 400 A.D and thereafter.

The great rishi Vyasa has been termed the Homer of India, but is in fact far more than that. He is what Homer would have been had he, besides singing of the Trojan War, also sired all its characters on both sides. The name itself, vy-asa, means “distributing or letting go in all directions (v/-)”—which could hardly be more apt. For this man was not only the author of the prodigious work itself and progenitor of all of its chief characters on both sides, but also the author of all eighteen or more of the Puranas (which are a series of lesser epics, dating from about the fourth to sixteenth centuries A.D.), collector and arranger of the four Vedas, creator of Vedantic philosophy, and a perfect forest recluse besides.

Vyasa

For there was in that fabulous time a king, Vasu by name, who was devoted to virtue (dharma) but no less to the hunt; and of a time when a certain great mountain near his capital, having become maddened with desire for the river that was flowing at its foot, embraced and so enclosed that river that its waters no longer flowed past the city, the king went and gave that mountain a kick. The river came flowing from the indentation, but was now pregnant and, giving birth to a boy and girl, presented them in gratitude to the king, who made the boy his general and the girl his wife. She was called Girika, “Daughter of the Mountain.” And when the season of her impurity came and passed, she told her husband of her state and went to the river to purify herself.

Now it is a principle of the dharma of all husbands that they must have intercourse with their wives immediately following the menstrual period, because—according to the infallible truth of Vedic revelation—this is the auspicious time for the begetting of a child. And so that king, having knowledge of the readiness of Girika, had knowledge also of his duty, to which he was devoted.

But he was devoted equally, as we have heard, to the pleasures of the hunt; and so, when it came to pass, even while his wife was at the river, that a number of his elder relatives arrived to invite him to hunt deer, reasoning that an ancestor should be obeyed and heeding the filial, not the marital, dharma, he departed.

There were numerous flowering trees in the country that he entered. Moreover, the whole forest at that time was maddened with the cooing of birds and hum of intoxicated bees; for the season was spring, and the groves through which he moved were as fair as the gardens of the genii of the earth. He was put in mind of his marital dharma, and, overcome by desire, sat him down beneath a beautifully blossoming, heavily scented tree, where, when his mind had dissolved to madness, he was overcome by a crisis; following which he mused that his seed should not be lost and, gathering it up in a large leaf, he called to a hawk soaring above: “O my friend, do thou bear this to my wife, who is in her season.”

Razmnama_Bhishma

The bird assumed the charge, but on the way a second hawk, supposing the burden to be meat, dove at it and it fell into the river Jumna, where it was immediately swallowed by a fish, who was actually a nymph under enchantment; and in the tenth month that unfortunate fish was taken by a fisherman, who, when he found a boy and girl within, was amazed. The boy presented to the king, became, presently, himself a king; but the girl, because of a perceptibly fishy smell with which she was endowed, was consigned to the fisherman to be his daughter. And the nymph, released, ascended to the sky. Thus the first part of this tale of the lineage of the author of the Mahabharata.

 

The second now tells of the girl. She was blessed with extraordinary beauty and gifted with all virtue. Satyavati, “Truth,” was her name, but she was known as Fishy Smell. And, serving her foster father, she plied a boat on the waters of the river Jumna, to which, one day, a great, a very great, yogi named Parashara came to be ferried to the other shore. And when he saw that girl with her tapering thighs smiling at him in that boat, he was suddenly mastered by desire. But she said: “O blessed saint, those other saints along the shores, waiting to be ferried: they would see.”

Ravi_Varma-Shantanu_and_Satyavati

The yogi thereupon brought down a fog by which they were obscured; seeing which, the girl was confused. “Know me to be a maid in her father’s keep,” she said. “O sinless saint without match, consider and behave.”

Delighted by her character, the saint reassured her. “Timid girl, your virginity can be restored,” he said. “Moreover, no wish of mine is ever without fruit. Ask of me anything you desire.” She begged that her body should have a sweet smell; and so, their desires, mutually, were granted. Virginity returned; and the maid was known thereafter as Gandhavati, “Sweetly Scented,” for men could smell the scent of her body from the distance of a league.

The yogi, on the yonder shore, departed for his hermitage, and the girl, in time, in secrecy, on a wooded isle in the middle of the holy river Jumna, whence she herself had come, gave birth to a boy. Once again virginity returned. And the infant, getting to his feet, walked away into the forest, saying as he left: “When you need me, think of me, Mother, and I shall appear.”

 

The reader will perhaps not be able to believe that this tale is quite precise as to fact. However, the son thus born was Vyasa; and we are reading his own account of these holy matters in his own great book—which goes on, now, with the adventure of the mother, still a virgin, to whose ferry there came, attracted by the scent, a certain great, a certain very great, king.

 

And this goodly man, no longer young, Santanu by name, had just bestowed the right of succession upon his excellent son Bhishma, born some years before of a lovely personage who had proved, to the king’s amazement, to have been the goddess-river Ganges. Approaching now the holy river Jumna, and perceiving that extraordinary scent, the king, scouting for its source, arrived at the boat of this beautiful maid of the fisherman caste. “O timid, lovely maid,” he said, “who can you be?” She answered: “I am the daughter, good sir, of the chief fisherman of this place, and in the service of my father I ferry pilgrims to the yonder shore.”

 

The king went directly to the father; but the fisherman said to him: “If your desire is for my daughter lawfully, you must pledge to me that the son born to you of her shall be the sole successor to your throne.” And when he heard that, the old king was unstrung. He returned to Hastinapur, his capital, and in sorrow, thinking only of that girl, began to waste away. Then his excellent son, Bhishma, discovering the cause of his father’s illness, went to that fisherman with a company of princes, saying, “My good man, I hereby vow before these princes that the son born to my father of your daughter shall be our king.”

But the fisherman answered: “I have no doubt, sir, of your vow. What, however, of the claims of your possible sons?” And the prince said, “I shall assume, then, a second vow: to live celibate for life.” Whereupon the hair of that fisherman stood on end. He bowed. And the virgin of the river was bestowed.

tumblr_lzgo0866Xe1rnm60yo1_1280  bhisma

Thus we come to the tale of the ferry-maid’s further sons; for the good king Santanu begot two. The elder succeeded to his throne, but was slain in battle, very young; and since the younger died of consumption, also very young, there were left two childless royal widows, beautifully tall, with flowing glossy hair, red nails, swelling breasts and mighty hips. And the widowed queen-mother, Satyavati, said to Bhishma, “The line is without issue.”

“But you are learned in the Vedas, powerful, virtuous, and, I am sure, concerned for the preservation of this line; so I shall appoint you to a certain act. Ascend in majesty our throne, marry the girls according to our rites, and beget sons.” Bhishma simply recalled to her the vow that her father had extracted, and she thought, next, in her strait, of the infant who had walked away.

Vyasa now was a great sage, at work interpreting the Vedas, yet he appeared, as promised, when his mother addressed her mind to him. “I shall produce sons like Yama and Varuna,” he said, when she had bathed him with her tears and confronted him with her charge. “Only first, let the two young ladies keep for a year certain vows that I shall assign.” She answered, “But our kingdom is in danger. The work is to be done today.”

“Well then,” said he, “let them tolerate my ugliness, grim visage, foul body, terrible odor, and frightening garb. If they can do that they will bear sturdy sons. Let the elder be adorned. Let her wait for me in a bed in pure attire.” And he disappeared. The girl having been tactfully persuaded, bathed, and beautifully adorned, Satyavati led her to a large bed.

“Here you will lie,” she said, “and await the elder brother of your spouse.” And the young widow, happily supposing Bhishma to be the elder brother meant, lay thoughtfully awake. The lamp burned. The door opened. A form entered. And what she saw, with a start, was an ascetic with black glowering face, blazing eyes, coppery piled-up matted hair, grim beard, and such an odor when he approached as she could hardly bear. She shut her eyes. And when he returned to Satyavati, “The boy,” he said, “will be as strong as ten thousand elephants, father of a thousand sons; however, because of the failure of the mother, who at the moment of conception shut her eyes, he will be blind.”

Dhritarastra_a

And the child was indeed blind. He became the great king Dhritarashtra (“He who supports,” dhrta, “the kingdom” rastra), father of the Kauravas, the enemy party in the plot of the Mahabharata.

But Satyavati, when she saw that child, once again thought of Vyasa, and when he appeared, bade him try again. The second lovely widow was committed, unsuspecting, to the bed. The lamp in the large room burned. The door opened. A figure entered and her eyes stood wide; she went pale. The saint approached, and when he had done with her, he said, “Since you are pale, your son also will be pale. So you shall call him Pandu” (pandu: “white, yellow-white, pale”).

And indeed, the son born was very pale. Yet he was the father of the Pandavas, the five hero brothers of the Mahabharata: Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva. In other words, the epic war was to be in essence a conflict between the Sons of Darkness (a king who had been conceived with the eyes closed) and the Sons of Light (one conceived with the eyes open).

Something considerably more complex appears in the highly developed, apparently ridiculous, but actually extremely sophisticated symbolic game of the Brahmins by whom the physically impossible biography of Vyasa was devised.

Ganesa_writing_the_Mahabharat

*This story is taken in its entirety from Joseph Campbell’s “The Masks of God-Oriental Mythology” pp 328-333 in the chapter titled “The Golden Age of India”.

Aside

Before we embark upon the Myth of Yoga, since it is the height of Spring in the Pacific Northwest, let us take a pastoral interlude and enjoy one of the most incredible stories ever told. The flowers are bursting open, the birds and the bees are flying with palpable frenzy as they sense the nectar all around.  Winter has fled, and the Resurrection is upon us.

In the Golden Age of India there was written one of humanity’s masterpiece epics, that of the Mahabharata.  8 times the length of the Illiad and Odyssey combined, the stories span generations, culminating in the classic recounting of Lord Krishna and the battle of Kurukshetra.

I remember the first time I read the opening chapters of Vyasa’s work, and my reaction was that of complete disbelief. I had to read the tale again and again, to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, and also to comprehend the subtlety and symbolism.

For you see, as a Westerner I was approaching the Mahabharata as a somewhat factual history of India, with appreciation for its religious teachings regarding Hinduism’s most beloved avatar, Bhagavan Sri Krishna. At the time my reference point was the same as opening the Holy Bible, where I would read the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis, seeking to gain understanding of the religious history of the Judeo-Christian faith.

But you must realize that Myths are properly understood and experienced as metaphors which relate to your own psyche, and do not primarily refer to something that happened someplace a long time ago. The surest way to destroy the spiritual import of religion is to insist that the myth stories are to be interpreted as historical facts. When you force yourself to believe that the Bible, Gita or Koran is to be interpreted literally, and then you are faced with the impossibility of the stories having occurred as historical facts, the result is often doubt, loss of faith and alienation.

Aaahh, but I get ahead of myself. Here is the tale:

When Sperm Could Fly! -Vyasa and the Mahabharata