As a long-term student of Yoga in the tradition of Prof. T Krishnamacharya, my study, understanding and appreciation of Yoga texts has been informed not only through reading, but by years of association with one tradition and one teacher, TKV Desikachar. This unique opportunity has been a great blessing in my life, a blessing I now want to share as I am presented with a new translation of one of the most important texts on Yoga, the Hathayogapradlpika of Svatmarama and its commentary by Jyotsna.
I find this edition by Dr. Kausthub Desikachar to be scholarly in the breadth of its content, its organization and its respect for the source material. As an American student, mentor and Yoga teacher trainer, I am most impressed by several outstanding features.
Today, through the internet and the easy availability of international publications, students of Yoga the world over have access to an almost unimaginable abundance of information. Yet, the way this information is presented and/or gathered does not often come in the form of a comprehensive or relevant teaching.
In this edition, the quality and use of the English language makes the translations and footnotes fully accessible to serious students willing to give the time and attention needed to digest the content. Likewise, the inclusion of both the Devenegari script and transliteration in the word by word translation provides a useful tool for extensive study.
T Krishnamacharya's and TKV Desikachar's teaching has always focused on the respect a teacher must have for the student as an individual. This includes the cultural context in which the student is living. In this new work, Dr. Kausthub Desikachar has achieved the formidable task of creating a bridge from ancient source material to students living in the modern world. By his careful combination of structure, language and footnotes he clarifies content and helps make it relevant as well. Dr. Kausthub Desikachar has skillfully brought the essential qualities of this ancient teaching to the modern reader.
The term Hathayoga needs no introduction today. Or does it?
Millions of people from every corner of the world claim that they practice or teach Hathayoga. But what is the true meaning of Hathayoga? What does it constitute? And who are its eligible practitioners? Is it really a forceful kind of Yoga?
These and many other questions have remained unanswered ever since the term Hatha hit the Yoga market. To clarify such questions and understand the richness of its teachings, the best place to begin is the Hathayogapradipika, considered one of the most authoritative texts on Hathayoga.
Believed to be composed in the fourteenth century AD, the Hathayogapradipika is authored by the grand master Yogin Svatmarama. He was not only an adept in this field but was also an expert in the deeper aspects of the Samskrte language. The manner in which he presents such a rich teaching through the powerful lyrics and beautiful poetry that constitute this text is a testimony to his proficiency.
He also comes from a long and illustrious lineage of teachers who were the architects of Hathayoga, at a time when India was in need of a social and cultural renaissance. This group was considered revolutionary at the time, and hence was shrouded in controversy. So, who are they?
The Kapalika-s, or the Skull Men
The Kapalika-s are one of the two main sects of Siva followers, who follow a non-Puranic or Tantric form of Saivism. Some of their members were considered to have written the Bhairava-tantra-s, including the subdivision called the Kau/a-tantra-s.
They were in existence fairly early and were well known by the seventh century AD. Even the legendary Buddhist traveler Hiuen Tsang, who traveled through India between 630- 645 AD, saw them and described them as wearer[s] of skulls.' One of the characters in Bhavabhuti's play, Malati-Madhava, which was composed in the eighth century, is a Kapalika. According to the great Dvaita master, Madhvacarya, even Adi Sankara was in controversy with the Kapalika-s. Acarya-s like Anandagiri and Ramanujacarya also talk about them. and the latter is believed to have viewed them as extreme in their practices.
They are called Kapalika-s. literally meaning the 'skull-men: because they carried a skull-topped staff and used human craniums as begging bowls. Differing from the more respectable Brahmin householder of the Saiva-Siddhant. the Kapalika ascetic imitated his ferocious deity. Lord Siva. covered himself in ashes from the cremation ground. and propitiated his Gods with the supposedly impure substances of blood. meat. alcohol. urine and sexual fluids from intercourse. unconstrained by caste restrictions. By flaunting such rules and going against Vedic injunctions. the Kapalika-s were considered impure by the more orthodox Brahmins. and hence were considered a Tantric sect. Their main aim was spiritual power through evoking powerful deities. especially the Goddesses.
Their divergence from the traditional and more orthodox social system can be attributed to various reasons.
Firstly. this was a time when Indian culture was becoming very sectarian and hence rife with conflicts. Many rules were also made that forbade a large and significant portion of the population from practicing Yogic methods. For example. women and those from a lower caste were not really allowed to practice the Astanga-yoga system propounded by Patanjali, owing to the use of Mantra in its practices. Mantra-s were a significant part of the classical Astanga-yoga system. They were used in the practice of Asana and Pranayama to measure duration of breath. and also formed an essential ingredient in the meditative practices of Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. So, when Mantra-s became inaccessible to a significant portion of the population. then these other tools also became unavailable to them.
Secondly. the traditional spiritual systems of practice became very structured and hierarchical. full of rules and regulations. Thus. in the perception of the Skull-men. they became devoid of spontaneity. wisdom and intuition. all attributes of feminine energy. The Kapalika-s believed that the main purpose of Yoga was to seek a harmony between the dual energies of masculine and feminine. and not just propagate the dominance of one. With their goal being to create balance. they sought to honor the divine feminine. as well as the divine masculine. Despite honoring both forms of deities. they were primarily known as the Goddess worshippers. because at that time the social norm was to honor only the masculine.
Thirdly, owing to the strict injunctions of the Brahmins, some articles were viewed as sacred, while others were not. And only these sacred articles were approved to be used in worship, while others were rejected as unclean. The Kapalika-s were of the strong view that the divine sacred was everywhere in this manifested universe, a view found even in the most important Upanisad-s. So, the Kapalika-s, aggrieved by such biased perception of the more orthodox teachers of the time, led the way by honoring the divine through supposedly impure substances such as blood, meat, alcohol. urine and sexual fluids from intercourse.
Finally, they also disapproved of the traditional Brahmins of the time who aligned themselves with the ruling class, established themselves as Rajaguru-s (teachers of Royalty], and lost themselves in affairs of state, rather than focusing on spiritual pursuits. The Kapalika-s were essentially ascetics, who rejected material prosperity and pursued spiritual wealth instead, living a very simple lifestyle. For many their only material possessions were their loincloth, their begging bowl and a staff.
This is why they were considered rebels and were often cast out by the conventional society of the time. In the beginning they were left alone, as they were considered to be no more than a bunch of eccentric practitioners. But this was not to last long, as they were not just uneducated freaks, but were all very well versed in the traditional Sastra-s.
Eventually, the immense popularity of their teachings would have threatened the Brahmin teachers, who often had the aid of the rulers as well. Hence it is imaginable that they were sometimes hunted down, and so had to go underground for a while. This is perhaps one among many reasons why they repeatedly express the idea that the Hathayoga teachings must be very carefully kept secret.
They had a very significant influence on Yoga, especially Hathayoga. Evidence of this can be found through texts such as Sivasamhita and Hathayogapradlpika, among others, which list some of their so-called 'eccentric practices. This apart, the main texts of their lineage, the Bhairava-tantra and the Kaula-tantra, offer many Yogic practices as part of their teachings.
Bhairava-tantra is a key text of Kashmir Saivism. It is presented as a discourse between Lord Siva and his consort Sakti. The text talks about one hundred and twelve meditation methods, known as Dharana-s, which include Pranayama, concentration on energy centers of the body, non-dual awareness, chanting, visualisation and contemplation through each of the senses. An important aspect discussed in these texts is the prerequisite to success in any of the one hundred and twelve practices, which shows a clear understanding of how the method chosen must suit the practitioner.
Kaula or Kula describes a particular form of Hindu Tantrism, more associated with the Kapalika sect of ascetics. Spiritual purity, sacrifice, freedom, the spiritual master [Guru) and the heart are core concepts of the Kaula tradition. Similar to other Tantric schools, the Kaula-tantra adopts an approach of positive affirmation, rather than prescribing self-limitations and condemning certain actions. Thus, it embraces concepts such as sexuality, love, social life and artistic pursuits as important domains of spiritual evolution. The main approach of Kaula-tantra is practical methods for attaining enlightenment, rather than merely engaging in complex philosophical debates. The main means are spiritual family, initiation into rituals, sexual rituals such as Maithuna, spiritual alchemy, controlling energy through Mantra-s and other mystical methods, and the realization of individual and universal consciousness.
The Kaula lineage is closely linked to the Siddha and Natha traditions. Their influence was therefore significant, because of the importance of the Natha lineage to the teachings of Yoga. It is highly possible that Svatmarama and others in this lineage belonged to the Kaula tradition, and perhaps even to the Kapalika sect. This may be the reason for some of the mysterious practices that form part of texts such as Hathayogapradipika.
Throughout history, many conservative Yogin-s disapproved of their methods, and shied away from their practices/ Yet the Kapalika-s have endured till the current day. Visitors to Varanasi, the ancient and holy city on the banks of the river Ganga, can even now come face to face with such ascetics.
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