By Eric Vandenbroeck
As recently once more explained in The Yogasūtra of Patañjali: A New Introduction to the Buddhist Roots of the Yoga System by Pradeep P. Gokhale (29 May 2020) much of what is said about yoga is misleading. It is neither five thousand years old, as is commonly claimed, nor does it mean union, at least not exclusively. In perhaps the most famous text, as Gokhale details, the aim of its originating is separation, isolating consciousness from everything else. As for the popularization of Yoga in the West, this in turn was influenced by the notion of occultism and modern physical culture.
Modern yoga thus evolved in a discursive milieu that incorporates such disparate strands as Hindu religion, occultism, medicine, physical culture, and nationalism.
While as we have seen in India itself the Naths were the spiritual ancestors to modern Hatha Yoga, whereby James Mallinson and Mark Singleton's book Roots of Yoga (2017) and a 2018 book published by the Univerity of Vienna referred to Theosophy, itself a hybrid of diverse currents, described the wider contexts of how the yogic idea transformed itself.
Thus what we know as modern yoga then evolved in a discursive milieu that incorporates such disparate strands as Hindu religion, occultism, pre-modern medicine, physical culture, and as I explained also in reference to Ayurveda nationalism.
Strands like this one can among others seen reflected in the teacher of Paramahansa Yogananda Sri Yukteswar an honorary member of the Theosophical Society, whose Kaivalya Darsanam: The Holy Science (1894) mentions Western astrology and fringe science speculations about electricity and magnetism using the concepts of occult sciences and the astral body. Paramahansa Yogananda one of the most popular purveyors of Yoga in the West continued these lines of thought.
Theosophical circles and the re-invention of Yoga
Currently researched by Julian Strube (who wrote a Ph.D. dissertation about the occultist Eliphas Levi the latter who himself counts as an inspiration for modern Theosophy) in a study titled Tantra in Kontext (Tantra im Kontext) focusses among others on John Woodroffe. As earlier Kathleen Taylor (Sir John Woodroffe, Tantra and Bengal, 2001, p. 249) pointed out Woodroffe’s wife Ellen was a member of the Theosophical Society, and both the Woodroffes were friendly with Annie Besant.
And while Woodroffe avoided the term Theosophy in his books it was this tantric and esoteric space that the theosophists were trying to address. The Theosophical Society thus emerged as a transcultural agency that connected the Orient with the Occident, highlighting the occultist and esoteric lore of a self-invented Hinduism.
Also the nineteenth-and twentieth-century reinterpretations of the chakras indicate a transition from traditional South Asian forms of yoga to transnational modern yoga and the diffusion of the latter into a broader field of meditative and therapeutic practices. They also exemplify the theosophical realization of Occultism’s transcultural project through direct interaction with South Asian traditions and the Hindu Renaissance. Modern yoga and Theosophy became global movements that cannot be categorized as “Western” or “Eastern,” although this Orientalist polarity contributed to their development.
The Theosophical Society in Madras and London printed a book by Srisa Chandra Vasu (1861–1918), an Indian scholar where he translated the Siva Samhita into English under the title The Esoteric Science and Philosophy of the Tantras.
Whereby two years later, in 1895, Vasu’s Gheranda Samhita, a Treatise on Hatha Yoga, was published by the Bombay Theosophical Society.
Yet in modern translations and exegeses of “classical” hatha yoga texts, there was often a marked hostility toward the very practitioners of the doctrines under consideration. And not only Vasu but also exponents of practical yoga in the West, Swami Vivekananda and Mme. H. P. Blavatsky (who early on worked with the Arya Samaj one of the spiritual and intellectual progenitors of the RSS and its offshoot the BJP), were actually themselves pointedly antagonistic to Hatha yoga practices and purposefully avoided association with them in their respective formulations (even though such elements are not entirely absent from their teachings).
Vasu’s translations of hatha yoga texts however were one of the very few accessible sources for English speakers wishing to find out more on the topic. The only other widely available printed English translations of Hatha yoga texts at this time were Ayangar’s Hatha Yoga Pradlpika (Theosophical Society 1893), Ayangar, and Iyer’s Occult Physiology. Notes on Mata Yoga (Theosophical Society 1893).
As some of the very earliest and most widely distributed English translations of hatha yoga texts, therefore, Vasu’s editions not only defined to a large extent the choice of texts that would henceforth be included within the Hatha yoga “canon” but were also instrumental in mediating Hatha yoga’s status both within modern anglophone yoga as a whole and within the new, “free-thinking” modern Hinduism identified by Basu. For many decades, indeed, these works continued to be the source texts for anyone interested in discovering more about hatha yoga, and they are still republished and read today.
So how does Vasu reconcile the widespread condemnation of the Hatha yogin within scholarship and his decision to translate some of the primary texts of that tradition? In his “Introduction to Yoga Philosophy” which prefaces the 1915 combined volume of the SS and the GhS (entitled The Yoga Sastra) Vasu repeatedly condemns “those hideous specimens of humanity who parade through our streets bedaubed with dirt and ash—frightening the children, and extorting money from timid and good-natured folk.” In India, he confirms, this grotesque beggar-figure is what “many understand by the word Yogi” in spite of the apparent fact that “all true Yogis renounce any fraternity with these." What Vasu is attempting with his vignettes of sinister holy men (and indeed in his introduction as a whole) is a reclamation of the very signifiers “Yogi” and “Yoga” from what they do mean in popular parlance and practice to what they should mean.
By dint of their “bigotry and ignorance,” the Hatha yogis appear in Vasu’s vision as the natural enemy of the true Yogi and have moreover “proved a great stumbling-block to the progress of this science [of Yoga]”. This semantic and ideological maneuver on Vasu’s part epitomizes Narayan’s observation that “if the self-torturing holy man was denigrated in his embodiedness, the yogi was a disembodied textual ideal”. What is being attempted here in Vasu’s Sacred Books translation is a redefinition of the yogin, in which the grassroots practitioner of Hatha methods has no part. The modern yogin must be scientific where the Hatha yogin is not.
Vasu offers stern warnings against the inherent perils of engaging in these practices: those impetuous ones who venture alone into the kind of “occult books” that the author here translates “are always exposed to the danger of degenerating into Hatha Yoga” 1. In this, Vasu is largely in agreement with the pronouncements of Muller on the "degeneration” caused by Hatha yogins as well as with the hard-line Theosophical rejection of Hatha practices (see below). He even goes so far as to entirely omit the description of certain traditional hatha yoga techniques from his translation, such as vajrollmudra, in which the practitioner sucks vaginal and seminal fluids back into the penis during the act of sexual intercourse, he dismisses vajroll as “an obscene practice indulged in by low-class Tantrists” 2. It is worth noting that the practice of vajroti has continued to be censored in modern editions of hatha yoga texts. Vishnudevananda cuts it from his translation of HYP, considering that, like the related practices of sahajoll and amaroll, it falls outside the bounds of wholesome practice, or sattvic sadhana.
Vasu’s introduction thus seems to flatly condemn the very practices of which his translation is a document. If these practices, and those who undertake them, are morally suspect, why bother representing them for an English-speaking audience at all? Why not simply omit them, as Muller had done? What is surprising is that Vasu’s original 1895 translation of his Gheranda Samhita opens with a dedication by the “humble sevaka” Vasu to the well-known guru Haridas, “whose practical illustrations and teachings convinced the translator of the reality, utility, and the immense advantages of Hatha Yoga.” In this earlier edition, therefore, Vasu presents himself as a “humble servant” (i.e., student and devotee) of a renowned Hatha yogin, an insider rather than a mere impartial or critical commentator on hatha yoga. There are none of the doom-filled warnings of the 1915 edition but rather a marked emphasis on the benefits of the practices, as well as a long account of the miraculous, forty-day “burial” of his guru under “scientific” supervision.
Vasu’s intention in the 1915 volume is not simply to decry Hatha yogins but to fashion an ideal of what a real practitioner of yoga should be, an ideal thoroughly informed by the scientific, rational, and “classical” values of the day. Yoga implores Vasu, must be looked upon as legitimate science.
S. C. Vasu’s brother and editor, Major Basu, was in fact one of the early, leading lights of yoga that would come to full flower in India during the 1920s and 1930s with Sri Yogendra and Swami Kuvalayananda. As a brief review of the early orientations of Vasu and Basu shows, however, the dawn of Hatha yoga as promoted by Yogendra and Kuvalayananda. arrived several decades earlier than has been supposed.
According to Vasu, the Siva Samhita is proof that the Hindus were acquainted with the spinal cord, brain, and central nervous system. In this essay, and in a paper on the “Anatomy of the Tantras” published a year earlier in the Theosophist (March 1888), Basu commenced a mapping of tantric body symbolism onto Western anatomy that would keep the later pioneers of “scientific” Hatha yogic phenomena occupied for many decades to come. Kuvalayananda himself, indeed, identified Basu’s Theosophist article as “the oldest attempt in the direction of scientifically interpreting the Yogic Anatomy. It is here, perhaps, that for the first time a "scientific” attempt is made to "identify the Nadis, Chakras and Padmas” of hatha yoga with the conduits of the spine and the plexuses of the anatomical body.
Contrary to this assertion, we should note, there is no evidence whatever that “Tantrists,” or any other religious group in India, ever engaged in the dissection of corpses. Basu’s claim should, therefore, be understood as a projection of the scientific present onto the screen of tradition and as an expression of the modern need to view the Hatha yogic body as anatomical and real. It is this need that forms the impetus and rationale for the Hatha experimentation of the twentieth century.
Another important early moment in the reconciliation of tradition and science is A Treatise on the Yoga Philosophy by Dr. N. C. Paul (also known as Navma Candra Pala), originally published in 1850 but saved from obscurity by the Theosophical Society reprint of 1888. Perhaps even more than Basu’s work, this study might be credited as the first attempt to marry Hatha yoga practice and theory with modern medical science. Paul considers Hatha yogic suspension of the breath and the circulation of blood in Western medical terms, once again (like Vasu) evoking the internment of the guru Haridas as the paradigm of yogic physiological control. As Blavatsky notes, the book’s appearance in 1850 “produced a sensation amongst the representatives of medicine in India, and a lively polemic between the Anglo-Indian and native journalists” 3.
Copies were even burned on the grounds that the text was "offensive to the science of physiology and pathology 4. However, its republication by the Theosophical Society, in the same year as Basu’s seminal article in the Society’s journal, relaunched it as a key text in the early formulation of hatha yoga as science, and it was used as an authoritative source on hatha yoga by some European scholars.
The uniqueness of the theosophical movement in India rests on the fact that theosophy initiated its own brand of modernity, thus creating a nexus between religion and politics in a much more pronounced way than the other neo-Hindu organizations did. Professor Gauri Vishwanathan tells us how the theosophists cite race theory to get Hindu converts. As shown earlier, the ‘Aryan myth’ found great popularity in 19th century Europe and German Idealism started viewing Indian upper castes as Aryans: though much degenerated than their European counterparts due to long intermarriages with Indian aborigines. Blavatsky and her followers saw Aryans as the fifth root-race on earth and the highest in contemporary times.
All of this came against a backdrop of the rapid development of modern Hinduism. Various modern-style organizations, established and run largely by middle-class Hindus, were influential in this process. They contributed to the emergence of the idea of Hinduism as an objective phenomenon, comparable to other, similar phenomena (the `world's religions'). It is widely understood that such organizations, and their ideas about Hinduism as an objective phenomenon, developed as a form of cultural resistance to colonial rule. Swami Vivekananda, for example, was the leader of the innovative Ramakrishna Math and Mission.
As for my mentioning of the Theosophical Society as a transcultural agency that connected the Orient with the Occident, it should be made clear that is also important to note, that the allegiances that Blavatsky and Olcott forged with South Asians tended to be short-lived. Prior to their departure for India, Madame Blavatsky had told Olcott that Swami Dayananda Saraswati, the founder of the Arva Samaj, was “an adept of the Himalayan Brotherhood inhabiting the Swami’s body.” But by 1882, Olcott had concluded that the swami was just a swami, not an adept at all, who had expressed his vexation “to me, in very strong terms, that I should be helping the Ceylon Buddhists and the Bombay Parsis to know their religions better than heretofore, while, as he said, both were false religions.” Others, including such legendary figures as Vivekananda and Dharmapala, after initially cordial relations with the Theosophists, would take exception to their claim that they could help Hindus and Buddhists “to know their religions better than heretofore” and would disavow any connection of their Hinduism and their Buddhism to Theosophy.
Also, Buddhist figures did not reciprocate the interest of the Theosophists. In 1905, the leading Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka, Hikkaduve Sumangala (1827-1911), withdrew his imprimatur from the fortieth edition of Olcott's Buddhist Catechism, declaring that seventeen of the answers were “opposed to the orthodox views of the Southern Church of Buddhism.”
Anagarika Dharmapala, the person who had been closest to Blavatsky and Olcott in their early efforts on behalf of Buddhism, was particularly emphatic in his repudiation of Theosophy. In 1906, he published an essay entitled, “Can a Buddhist Be a Member of the Theosophical Society?” The short answer was “no.” Buddhism bore no historical relation to any other religion, and thus a “conscientious Buddhist who is well versed in Buddhist lore can no more sympathise with the principles of Theosophy than with the teachings of Christ, Muhammad, Krishna and Moses.” Two decades later, he was more vociferous, writing in a letter of February 20, 1926, “Members of the Theosophical Society who follow [Charles W.] Leadbetter and Mrs. Besant are against Buddhism.
In the Theosophical Church created by Leadbeater (author of a 1927 book that popularised the Chakras) with the help of Episcopus vagantes of the Old Catholic Church one of Leadbeater's own Bishops, in turn, gave a talk called “The Priest’s Craft: Mass as Yoga,” delivered in 1928.
Thus, Theosophy, which, in an apparently ecumenical spirit, had sought to unite the religions of the world through linking them back to an a historic and prehistoric wisdom, was rejected by the Buddhists like Dharmapala as a modern creation.
The development of postural yoga
As seen above the foremost exponents of practical yoga in the West, Swami Vivekananda and Mme. H. P. Blavatsky, were actually themselves pointedly antagonistic to Hatha practices and purposefully avoided association with them in their respective formulations (even though such elements are not entirely absent from their teachings).
Yet back in India, yoga was taking another turn through the efforts of Sri Yogendra, who founded his Yoga Institute in Mumbai in 1918, and Swami Kuvalayananda, who founded his Kaivalyadhama ashram in Lonavla (near Pune) in 1924. Yogendra had been a keen athlete and wrestler in his youth and, shortly after establishing his Institute, spent four years in the United States, where it is possible that he gave the first ever demonstrations of asanas. Both Yogendra and Kuvalayananda focused primarily on yoga as physical practice, and both were also concerned with investigating modern scientific justifications for the perceived health benefits of yoga - they are often seen as pioneers of the modern discipline of yoga therapy. They also had an interest in bringing yoga to a wider audience, which they did through a number of popular publications aimed at the ‘person in the street’. It is in the teachings of Yogendra and Kuvalayananda that we perhaps first encounter standing postures such as triangle pose (trikondsana) or the warrior postures of contemporary yoga.
First Indian Yoga teachers arrive in the USA and having its influence also on Europe
A. K. Mozumdar arrived in Seattle from Calcutta in 1903 and set out to teach what was arguably the first form of “Christian Yoga” on the market. Mozumdar maintained a small following in Spokane for about sixteen years, lecturing to the community and working closely with the local branch of the Theosophical Society, New Thought group, and Unity Church, as well as publishing a regular periodical entitled Christian Yoga Monthly. After 1919, he relocated to Los Angeles, from where he launched himself onto a broader lecture circuit along the west coast and across the Midwest.
Mozumdar was also the first individual of South Asian descent to be granted American citizenship in 1913, though it was later quite tragically revoked after the landmark case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind. in 1913, which subsequently barred South Asians from citizenship until the passage of the Luce-Celler Act in 1946. However, though Thind would come to be remembered for this case, in which he valiantly tried and failed to contest the arbitrary nature of racial categorization, he also left a legacy as a spiritual author and teacher. Thind was a Punjabi Sikh who came to the United States in 1913 to pursue higher education, and he did indeed ultimately earn his doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley. He was deeply influenced by the Transcendentalists, especially Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau, and wove their universalist spirituality together with Sikhism in his own teachings.
While some like Mozumdar and Thind focused their teachings on devotional and philosophical themes, others, such as Yogi Rishi Singh Gherwal, Yogi Wassan Singh, Yogi Hari Rama, and then-Swami Yogananda taught a more physically- oriented practice.Though Gherwal was the only one to prescribe exercises that would today be recognizable as postrural yoga, Yogananda, Hari Rama, and Yogi Wassan incorporated other forms of calisthenics with distinctively yogic goals. Such Yogis often struggled to meet the needs of audiences who were interchangeably looking for familiar images of ascetics, magicians, mystics, and sometimes all three at once. They followed a well-established lecture circuit, participated in vaudeville productions, and published a number of philosophical and instructive volumes on yoga. Such publications varied vastly in both quality and originality.
For instance, Yogi Wassan s 1917 magnum opus, Secrets of the Himalaya Mountain Masters and Ladder to Cosmic Consciousness, features a vaguely Hatha yogic model, relying upon a system of plexuses opened along the principal energetic channels, which constitute “The Secret Key of Opana Yama” or “the System used by Householders to develop without excessive practice.” A combination of diet, basic calisthenics, and specialized exercises promises to produce a “Super-Man” and “Super-Woman” endowed with perfect bodily health and telepathy, as well as the power of self-projection through an “ethereal body” The book is a rather dense volume, containing a multitude of mantras in corrupted Sanskrit and of indeterminate origin, lists of various stages of attainment, and instructions concerning various practices, some of which appear rather ill-advised as they require one to stare directly into the sun for lengthy periods of time. This is followed by a set of recipes, some of which are for bathing the eyes, unsurprising since most of the “Occult Concentration” exercises seem to involve some form of optic manipulation, while others are for homemade candy. The end lapses into practical miscellanea ranging from “How I make my Chicken Soup,” to “What I Should Do if I Should Have a Hemorrhage or Diarrhea,” to “How I Shampoo My Hair.”
As we have seen there are two other early 20th-century Indian yoga pioneers, whose names are probably better known in the West than either Yogendra or Kuvalayananda. Swami Sivananda was born in 1887, and trained as a medical doctor, spending time in Malaya. Although initiated into a renunciate monastic order in 1923, Sivananda was throughout his life a modernizer, rejecting both some of the inbuilt hierarchical structures of Indian society and the extremes of renunciate life. In 1930, he founded the precursor of what in 1939 became the Divine Life Society in Rishikesh, northern India, and from 1940 sent disciples through India to teach a synthetic yoga that included asana, prandyama, mudra ai bandha practices alongside meditation, devotional practices and service.
Postural yoga, in turn, gained increasing importance when first developed in South Asia in the 1920s under the influence of gymnastics from Europe and the USA and other systems of modern physical culture. Postural yoga focuses on postural exercises, breathing- and relaxation techniques. In line with the rise of this form of yoga the status of yoga within society dramatically changed. From the late 1970s onward, yoga went mainstream and conquered the middle classes of late modern societies. It ceased to be a countercultural or elitist occult movement and was reinvented as a transnational pop-cultural phenomenon. Within a short time, yoga became an essential part of the rapidly growing holistic milieu that Christopher Partridge described as wellbeing occulture.
Advocates such as Yogendra and Kuvalayananda made yoga acceptable in the 1920s, treating it as a medical subject. From the 1930s, the "father of modern yoga" Krishnamacharya developed a vigorous postural yoga, influenced by gymnastics, with transitions (vinyasas) that allowed one pose to flow into the next.
Today Yoga practitioners will return to their mats week after week for the same reasons they have for the last fifty years; the experience makes them feel better, although they might not be quite sure what exactly causes this effect.
Less wide-eyed than the New Age forms of Yoga in the west is the militant form of Yoga as promoted by President Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party and the RSS.
1. Vasu, The Yoga Sastra 1915: 42
2. Vasu, The Yoga Sastra 1915: 51
3. Personal Memoirs Of HP Blavatsky - Mary K Neff, 1937: 94-95.
4. Idem, 95