The European Representation of Yoga

Here I will briefly consider some early representations of yogins by European visitors to India, before going on to examine their status in European scholarship of the late nineteenth century. I then consider the important early modern hatha yoga translations of S. C. Vasu, particularly as they mediate the figure, and the practices, of the hatha yogin. My aim is to demonstrate the extent to which the practices of the hatha yogins were negatively viewed by scholars during the crucial period leading up to the first reformulations of yoga for modern, anglophone audiences. The new, English language yogas devised by Vivekananda and others emerged in a climate of opinion that was highly suspicious of the yogin, especially the practitioner of hatha yoga. Yogins were more likely to be identified by their critics (both Indian and European) with black magic, perverse sexuality, and alimentary impurity than with “yoga” in any conventional sense.

Scholars of the period tended to admire what they saw as the rational, philosophical, and contemplative aspects of yoga while condemning the obnoxious behavior and queer ascetic practices of the yogins themselves. This situation resulted in the exclusion of hatha yoga from the initial stages of the popular yoga revival.

Early European Encounters

Although the European interest in Indian holy men probably began as far back as the ancient Greeks’ encounters with the so-called gymnosophists, we will begin by examining perceptions of the yogin during the period of modern European colonial expansion. Yogi (or “jogi”/“ioghee”) was the usual shorthand designation for hatha practitioners of the Nāth and Kānphataorders, but the term acquired a far broader significance in colonial India. European visitors commonly had difficulty distinguishing between the various categories of mendicant orders, and would commonly conflate the (Hindu) yogin and the (Mohammedan) fakir. From the seventeenth century onward, indeed, European travelers to India rarely made much of a “methodological or functional distinction” between them. For these visitors, “yogi” tended to signify the social group of itinerant renouncers known for their disreputable (and sometimes violent) behavior, mendicancy, and outlandish austerities. In the eighteenth century, the term sannyasi , or “sannyasi fakir,” also came into widespread usage among British officials as a catch-all phrase designating the kind of itinerant holy man who would  periodically disrupt the East India Company’s trade routes. The imprecision and interchangeability of these terms among European merchants and observers increased the general confusion as to the actual religious and ethnic identity of the yogin—a confusion that may have been tactically exploited by the yogi-sannyasi-fakirs themselves to ensure anonymity and freedom of movement. What is more important for the discussion that follows, however, is that these undifferentiated mendicant marauders tended to be regarded with hostility and suspicion.

François Bernier’s letters from India, written between 1659 and 1669, set the tone for the many descriptions of yogins that would follow. Bernier notes that there are those ascetics who “enjoy the reputation of being peculiarly enlightened saints, perfect Jauguis, and really united to God.” Such yogins spend their lives in contemplation and prayer, much like the European monk, and while Bernier suspects that the “ravissement” of these men may be the result of imagination or illusion, he nonetheless seems to have some respect for their efforts. That said, Bernier was wont to negatively compare the mystical practices of yogins to those of his occult-inclined foes in Europe, such as the astrologers Jean-Baptiste Morin and Girolamo Cardano. Even eighteen years later, just before his death, he was still comparing the French vogue for quietistic prayer to the fakirs, yogins, europeans practices of Indian yogins and suggesting that both partake of the kind of “maladies d”esprit,” madness, and extravagances common to men of all cultures.

Bernier notes another species of yogin: naked, covered in ashes and with long matted hair, often to be found sitting under trees engaging in painful austerities. Of this latter group Bernier comments:

No Fury in the infernal regions [mégère d’enfer] can be conceived more horrible than the Jauguis, with their naked and black skin, long hair, spindle arms, long twisted nails, and fixed in the posture which I have mentioned [i.e., arms raised overhead].

Some carry heavy chains of the kind usually seen on elephants while others spend hours in handstand position, or in a variety of other postures which are “so difficult and painful that they could not be imitated by our tumblers.” Such figures, he opines, are actually “vegetative rather than rational beings” (the terms are borrowed from Aristotle) who have been seduced by a life of lazy vagrancy or by their own vanity.

Other European observers of the time had similar reactions. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, writing in 1676, claims that these “Fakı̄rs” are imitators of Rāvana, the demon of the Rāmāyana , who was forced into a life of mendicancy after Rāma’s Chain-bearing fakir, army destroyed his land. He estimates that there are 800,000 Muslim fakirs in India, and 1,200,000 “among the idolators [i.e., Hindus].” His sketches and description of a group of fakirs under a banyan tree at Surat provide a vivid picture of the fakir-yogi’s life and recapitulate some of the practices remarked upon by Bernier. There are, notes Tavernier, an “infinity” of penitents, “some of whom assume positions altogether contrary to the natural attitude of the human body.”

Chain-bearing fakir, Oman 1903

John Ovington’s account of fakirs encountered during his voyage to Surat in 1689 is very similar to Tavernier’s, even down to the explanation of Rāvana as “The Original of these Holy Mendicants.” Both Gentiles (Hindus) and Moors (Muslims), he notes, have a “sordid aspect.” Being possessed by “the Delusions of Satan,” they take solemn vows to remain in “such and such kind of Postures all the days of their life.” These “unnatural postures” are much the same as those described by Bernier. Jean de Thevenot’s account of 1684 also matches in many details the accounts of Bernier and Ovington. He compares “faquirs” and  Jauges” to the Bohemians of France, suggesting that both originate in “libertinage.” It is probable that the commonalities in these accounts result from all three authors visiting Surat with a few years of each other and that Ovington and de Thevenot had access to the reports of Tavernier, as well as other European visitors.

As a final example, in his travelogue of East India and Persia of 1698, John Fryer notes that fakirs, operating under a pretense of religious piety, “are Vagabonds, and are the Pest of the Nation they live in.” Their aggressive begging has made them feared by the citizens, “nor is the Governor powerful enough to correct their Insolencies.” Like Bernier, Tavernier, and Thevenot, Fryer sketches some of the austerities that would fascinate ethnographic writers well into the twentieth century, such as overgrown nails that pierce the flesh of the hand, dislocated arms, and excruciating postures held for so long that the limbs in question become ossified and shriveled. Fryer also mentions one “Jougie” who “as a check to Incontinency, had a Gold Ring fastened to his Virile Member.”

Tavernier’s sketch of fakirs at Surat

Perceived as dissolute, licentious, and profane, these groups were greeted with puzzlement and hostility by early European observers. The performance of yogic postural austerities was the most visible and vaunted emblem of Indian religious folly, and as yogins increasingly took to exhibitionism as a means of livelihood, this association became consolidated in the popular imagination.

Fighting Yogins and Bhakti Ascendancy

As Fryer’s account suggests, the European dislike for yogins was not merely due to offended moral sensibilities: yogins were also difficult people to bring to order. From the fifteenth century until the early decades of the nineteenth century, highly organized bands of militarized yogins controlled trade routes across Northern India, becoming so powerful in the eighteenth century as to be able to challenge the economic and political hegemony of the East India Company. As a result of their harassment, notes YMCA literary secretary and historian J. N. Farquhar, “the income of the British Government in Bengal was seriously curtailed . . . more than once.” These ascetic mercenaries were from a variety of religious backgrounds and often purposefully masked their allegiance to avoid detection and punishment, even moving between denominations as profit dictated. It was in fact the hatha yoga-practicing Nāth yogins themselves (usually simply referred to as yogı̄s or jogı̄s ) who were the first major religious group to organize militarily.  Indeed, they became so influential and powerful as the “supernatural power brokers of medieval India” that they were able to make or break kings. They also continued to be identified as a threat to British economic interests: for employees of the Company, the term yogi connoted less the Himālayan hermit than the ascetic marauder. Even though the designation pointed to a confused agglomeration of violent ascetics as seen through British eyes (and not a practitioner of hatha yoga in the strict sense), it was nonetheless the hatha-practicing Nāths who were most closely associated with religious trade-soldiering.

The life of the marauding yogin offered a world of opportunity in Moghul and early British India. Militant asceticism furnished trade networks, social opportunities, and equality without caste hindrances. With the arrival of the Pax Britannica, however, such opportunities began to dwindle. In 1773, Warren Hastings enforced a ban on the wandering yogins of Bengal and began to promote the more sedentary, mainly Vaisnavaforms of devotional religious practice, which were already in the ascendant in India at the time.  The interests of the mainly Vaisnava mercantile and commercial elites, and those of the British, thus intersected in the condemnation of the wandering Saiva yogin.

Although pockets of violent resistance remained and certain “criminal tribes” were kept under surveillance well into the twentieth century, the ever-widening scope of police powers in India meant that yogins were increasingly demilitarized and forced to settle in cities and villages. It even became an offense to wander naked or to carry a weapon, the two defining marks of the nāga ascetic—a reflection, perhaps, of the double affront they posed to British decency on the one hand and military and economic hegemony on the other. No longer able to make a living by trade-soldiering, large numbers were forced into lives of yogic showmanship and mendicancy, becoming objects of scorn for many sections of Hindu society, and of voyeuristic fascination or disgust for European visitors.

As mercenaries, yogins were feared and reviled. As good-for-nothing social parasites parading their contortions for money or tied up in “nefarious and libidinous intrigues,” yogins were “despised rather than honoured” by orthodox Hindus. In a culture where the “polarity of purity and pollution organizes Hindu social space,” the caste-less yogin was the embodiment of ritual impurity, as well as the emblem of the savagery and backwardness from which modern Hindus sought to dissociate themselves. Orthodox Hindus despised them, and the British inhabitants of India looked askance at anyone dealing with “those dirty yogi blokes.” The hatha yogin was the common pariah of colonial India.

It should also be noted that militant yogins of all lineages engaged in exercise regimes designed to inure their bodies to the harsh physical conditions of the itinerant life and to prepare them for combat. These regimes were, notes Ghurye, “almost the counterpart of the military drill that a regular [i.e., modern, Westernized] regiment receives as a part of its training to keep it in trim.” Dasgupta argues that the nāga samnyāsins of the Dasanāmiakhāras practiced “physical penance and difficult postures” alongside combat techniques and training in the use of arms. Matthew Clark has recently shown that these akhāras owe a great deal to the Sufi martial organizations that had come to dominate northern and central India by the seventeenth century, and Vijay Pinch (2006) has similarly shown the extent to which “Hindu” militant cadres were porous to Sufi institutions. While I have found no hard evidence of any overlap in pre-modern times between hatha yogic practice per se and elements of military training (Sufi or otherwise), it is clear that the semantic slippage we have seen in the very term yogi (from a practitioner of yoga per se to an ascetic mercenary) broadens the term’s scope to include those who practice physical culture to non-yogic ends. It is this space of slippage that will later provide an important rationale for the incorporation of physical culture–oriented practice into modern yoga, by the likes of militant physical culturist, Manick Rao. It also helps to explain the apparent discrepancy between postures described in medieval hatha yoga texts and the kind of postural practice ascribed to hatha yoga by modern innovators: in modern times, that is, āsana comes to imply both yogic and martial practices of the body as well as newer, imported forms of physical culture.

Nineteenth-Century Scholarship

During the decades around Vivekananda’s reformulation of yoga it is common to find European scholarship characterizing yogins as dangerous, mendicant  tricksters, often in contradistinction to the contemplative, devotional  practitioners of “true” yoga. In this sense, scholarship contributed to keeping the hatha yogin and his practices beyond the pale of acceptable religious observance. In his The Religions of India of 1885, for example, the American Sanskritist E. W. Hopkins writes that “the Yogi jugglers” of the day share with Islamic fakirs the reputation “of being not only ascetics but knaves.” Two years later, W.J. Wilkins, in Modern Hinduism , records that the yogins have become mere “fortune-tellers,” “conjurors,” and “jugglers” who impose themselves on the ignorance and credulity of the people. Neither author presents these yogins as legitimate representatives of Hinduism nor gives any serious consideration to their religious worldview nor to their practices as valid in themselves. It is noteworthy that in his 1901 essay on yoga techniques in the “Great Epic,” Hopkins gives “classical” and Vedic precedents for the practice of austerities but has little time for present-day exponents who, he suggests, have no brains in their heads and are “nearly idiotic.” He insists that it is wrong to consider postural austerities—such as the familiar yoga posture of keeping one leg behind the neck (termed ekapādası̄rsāsana in Iyengar 1966) — as yoga, even though the practitioner may call himself a yogin (Iyengar 1966). Hatha yogic practice, in other words, holds little interest for these scholars.

M. Monier-Williams’s 1891 study, Brahmanism and Hinduism , shows a distinct preference for Vaisnava forms of belief and praxis over the apparently distasteful religious exhibitions of Saiva yogins. As Oxford University’s Boden Professor of Sanskrit, Monier-Williams was (along with Max Müller) one of the most distinguished and influential scholars of India of his day, and his writing helped to reinforce the negative reputation of the Saiva yogins. These yogins’ “appearance as self-mortifying mendicants” is, he avers, “often revolting to Europeans,” a situation only exacerbated by their disreputable moral character and “decidedly dirty habits.” The following pronouncement on a Saiva ritual he has been permitted to witness is typical of his stance:

I came away sick at heart. No one could be present at such a scene without feeling depressed by the thought that, notwithstanding all our efforts for the extension of education and the diffusion of knowledge, we have as yet done little to loosen the iron grip of idolatry and superstition on the masses of the people. (1891: 93)

His explicit intention in this book is both to convey to English readers the essential features of Hinduism and to reach English-speaking Indian readers who, being unable to give a “clear explanation of their own religious creeds or practices,” will benefit from the clarity of his exposition. This mission is evident in his assessment of the Saiva yogins. Monier-Williams was perhaps the single most influential exponent of the doctrine of “fulfillment,” in which Indian religious concepts were taken to be underdeveloped truths that could, with the right kind of guidance, pass beyond their limitations and on to the ultimate truth of Christianity. Within this paradigm, Indians (particularly those of the Saiva persuasion) were considered incapable of interpreting the real significance of their own sacred texts and required the superior intellectual and spiritual counsel of the Christian West. In this interpretation of Indian religious traditions, as well as in Hindu responses to such interpretations, the practices of Saiva yogins do not have a legitimate place and consistently invite censure and condemnation. Indeed, in his 1879 work, Modern India and the Indians, Monier-Williams had noted that the official prohibition of these yogic “self-tortures” was, along with bans on self-immolation and human sacrifices, “among the greatest blessings which India has hitherto received from her English rulers.” Monier-Williams’s vision is consistent with the British promotion of devotional forms of Vaisnavism as the paradigm of Indian religious practice.

Max Müller, the first “celebrity academician” and “Captain of the Orientalist enterprise” was similarly ill-disposed toward practitioners of hatha yoga. In his 1899 book on the six orthodox systems of Hindu philosophy, he condemns “all these postures and tortures” of hatha yoga, asserting that he is treating the topic of yoga at all only insofar as it may represent “a useful addition to the Sâmkhya —itself subordinate to the supreme philosophical system of the Vedānta. He accounts for the presence of such lower yogas by describing an ostensibly historical process of corruption and reformation within the Indian religious sphere. In its “early stages,” he claims, yoga “was truly philosophical,” but eventually degenerated into practical systems like hatha yoga. Even within Patañjali’s Yogasūtras, he maintains, “we are able to watch the transition from rational beginnings to irrational exaggerations, the same tendency which led from intellectual to practical Yoga.”

Müller is not alone in his negative attitude toward the practices of yogins, and his admiration for the “intellectual” schema of Sāmkhya and Vedānta. Narratives of “practical yoga” as a symptom of religious degeneration are often related to explain the lowly position of the hatha yogin within the religio-philosophical systems of Hinduism. Hopkins, for example, asserts that during the period of the Brāhmanas, the wild, unscrupulous yogin began to corrupt Brahminism’s admirable aim of attaining oneness with God. These “charlatan” yogins, with their reputation for sanctity, easily infiltrated Brahmin society and contributed to religious decline. Like Müller, Hopkins has an admiration for Sāmkhya and (especially) Vedānta as well as for the yoga of the Bhagavad Gı̄tā. Forms such as hatha, however, appear not only inferior but parasitic on other, worthier expressions of yoga. A similar account is given by Max Weber in his Religions of India of 1909 in which “the irrational mortification, the Hatha Yoga of pure magical asceticism,” is eventually superseded by the “classical Brahmanical holy technique,” itself comparable to contemplative Christianity. Like Hopkins and Müller, who are probably among his sources here, Weber considers hatha yoga an inferior relative of “classical”—that is, orthodox, and Vaisnava—Indian religion.

Girardot argues that such narratives stem from attempts by scholars like Müller and Hopkins to explain “the amalgamation of the religiously (and morally) pure and corrupt in authoritative sacred texts”; in fact, they unconsciously recapitulate a European Protestant narrative of an originally pure religion corrupted by power interests but eventually restored to its former pristine glory. Whatever the degree of historical legitimacy we wish to accord such accounts, the verdicts of Müller and Hopkins are representative of the unfavorable light in which hatha yogins tended to be cast by scholars of the period.

Hatha Yoga in Translation

Even in modern translations and exegeses of “classical” hatha yoga texts, there is often a marked hostility toward the very practitioners of the doctrines under consideration. A clear example of this is Richard Schmidt’s 1908 watercolor-illustrated translation of the Gheranda Samhitā, which draws freely on J. C. Oman’s 1903 account of the “mystics, ascetics and saints of India” for information regarding yogins. The book contains a collection of European accounts of yogins by authors such as Bernier and Fryer, and so it is not surprising that Schmidt should, like the majority of these authors, regard yogins unfavorably. He is, he declares, “as personally opposed as possible to fakirdom in India and its derivates in Europe and America,” and he characterizes yogi-fakirs as nothing but “petty thieves and swindlers.” What is noteworthy here is that the practitioners of the very doctrine Schmidt takes the time to translate and explain are condemned as morally opprobrious. They are, furthermore, confounded, as they always had been, with the Mohammedan fakir. Schmidt’s indignation regarding the introduction of yoga to the West is particularly interesting here, insofar as he judges these experiments to be expressions of hatha yoga. As we shall see in the following post, 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). That Schmidt should consider yogic experimentation in the West at this time to represent hatha practice is illustrative of the close ties that yoga in its practical expression had with the figure of the yogi-fakir. It was precisely this association, however, that modern yoga reformers sought to avoid.

S. C. Vasu and the Sacred Books of the Hindus

Other translations of the time reflect a similar ambivalence regarding the teachings of hatha yoga: if the texts themselves merit translation into English, the yogin himself remains a figure of utmost suspicion. Let us consider here the important translations by Rai Bahadur Srisa Chandra Vasu, which were among the first and most popular editions of “classical” hatha yoga available to a wide, English-speaking audience. The first of these translations, Siva Samhitā, originally appeared in the Arya of Lahore in 1884 and was reprinted in book form under the title The Esoteric Science and Philosophy of the Tantras in 1893 as part of Heeralal Dhole’s “Vedanta Series.” This series included translations of many of the major texts of Vedānta as well as new studies on Hindu religion, medicine, and theosophy. This 1893 edition of the Siva Samhitāwas published in Calcutta by Dhole himself, in Bombay by Jaishtaram Mookundji, in Madras and London by the Theosophical Society, and in Chicago by Open Court, a company that, according to a full-page advertisement on page 33, published a weekly journal of the same name, edited by Paul Carus and “devoted to the work of conciliating Religion with Science.” Vasu’s translation should thus be seen as part of the international effort to reconcile (medical) science with religion. This edition is dedicated to the co-founder of the Theosophical Society, Colonel H. S. Olcott, “in recognition of his services for the Revival of Aryan Religion and Ancient Philosophy” (frontispiece).

Two years later in 1895, Vasu’s Gheranda Samhitā, a Treatise on Hatha Yoga was published by the Bombay Theosophical Society. In 1914, Vasu’s Siva Samhitā was republished as a separate volume in the widely available “Sacred Books of the Hindus” series. In 1915 it was combined with the Gheranda Samhitāand published as a twin volume in the same series entitled The Yoga Sāstra, which included an extensive “Introduction to Yoga Philosophy” and commentary by Vasu. The book is edited by Vasu’s brother, Major B. D. Basu (also general editor =of the Sacred Books) and published by another family member, Sudhı̄ndranātha Vasu.

Alongside his hatha translations, S. C. Vasu was an energetic and prolific voice in the definition of modern Hinduism, and he wrote and translated widely for the Sacred Books series. His Catechism of Hindu Dharma (first edition 1899), for instance, is a credo of unitary Hinduism which, as Major Basu’s 1919 preface reads, reflects “a growing tendency to liberal and broad interpretation of the texts and to the need which is becoming felt in certain classes of educated Hindu Society for greater freedom, both of thought and practice.”

It is a self-conscious, ecumenical renovation of religious tradition, as is his Daily Practice of the Hindus of 1904, conceived as a manual of ritual observance for Hindus everywhere. Vasu’s translations of hatha yoga texts should be understood as part of his broader project to reinterpret and define the traditions of Hinduism to suit the requirements of the day. The “Sacred Books of the Hindus” series itself may be seen to represent an Indian alternative to Max Müller’s famous fifty-volume “Sacred Books of the East” (1879–1910). Not only is the series title virtually the same (with the crucial substitution of “Hindu” for “East”), but the volumes themselves, as objects, closely resemble those of Müller and present a very similar choice of “sacred” texts within Hinduism. Both series, moreover, were produced in English rather the vernacular languages of India. As high-quality, Indian-produced scholastic documents setting out the “canon” of Hinduism, by Hindus and for Hindus, these books are an important instance of the Indian intellectual and religious self-assertion that arose in response to the European doctrine of the “fulfillment” of Hinduism by Christianity. Like its European namesake, Basu’s Sacred Books series is a landmark in the creation of a modern canonical vision of Hinduism based on a particular selection of “sacred” texts.

Vasu’s translations of hatha yoga texts 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 texts at this time were Ayangar’s Hatha Yoga Pradı̄pikā(Theosophical Society 1893 ) and Pancham Sinh’s Hatha Yoga Pradı̄pikā (Sacred Books Series, 1915). 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 “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. For example, Vasant Rele (1927) relied on these translations for his well-known scientific exposition of the kundalinı̄  phenomenon and Theos Bernard uses them as the textual basis for his landmark 1946 account of a hatha yoga sādhana (course of practice). The same translations are reprinted today in cheap paperback editions.

Vasu and the Hatha Yogin

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 Sāstra) 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 yogı̄ was a disembodied textual ideal.” What is being attempted here in Vasu’s Sacred Books translation is a re-definition 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.” In this, Vasu is largely in agreement with the pronouncements of Müller on the “degeneration” caused by hatha yogins as well as with the hard-line Theosophical rejection of hatha practices. He even goes so far as to entirely omit the description of certain traditional hatha yoga techniques from his translation, such as vajrolı̄mudrā, in which the practitioner sucks vaginal and seminal fluids back into the penis during the act of sexual intercourse. He dismisses vajrolı̄as “an obscene practice indulged in by low class Tantrists.” It is worth noting that the practice of vajrolı̄has 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 sahajolı ̄and a marolı ,̄ it falls outside the bounds of wholesome practice, or “sattvic sadhana”. Rieker, a student of B. K. S. Iyengar, deems the same three practices to be “obscure and repugnant” and omits them entirely.

Vasu’s introduction 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 Müller had done? What is surprising is that Vasu’s original 1895 translation of his Gheranda Samhitāopens 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 at the court of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, taken verbatim from J. M. Honigberger’s famous travelogue Thirty-five Years in the East of 1852.

Yogin on a Bed of Nails, from Eliade 1963

It is worth noting that this incident crops up as a standard illustration of hatha yogic feats during the early twentieth century. Carrington, for example, retells the story of Haridas but assumes that “doubtless the details are familiar to most of my readers,” pointing to the story’s widespread currency. Remarkably, Mircea Eliade is still using the burial story as a negative example of yogic imposture as late as 1963 in his Patañjali et le Yoga . Here, Haridas is presented as an infamous charlatan and “man of loose morals” whose “mastery of Yoga does not in the least imply spiritual superiority.” An accompanying photograph of a sock- and sandal-wearing yogin on a bed of nails functions by association to confirm Haridas as a mere purveyor of cheap fakir tricks. As Narayan (1993) points out, the yogi’s bed of nails quickly became, in official and popular ethnography, the stock symbol of India’s moral and spiritual backwardness, and the intention behind Eliade’s odd juxtaposition of this image and the story of Haridas’s burial is clear.

Vasu’s apparent change of policy with regard to the practices of hatha yoga between the 1895 and the 1915 editions may reflect the formalization of the new creed of Hinduism during this twenty year period. The Sacred Books series, if it was to be taken seriously by scholars or modern Hindus, could not permit the acknowledgment of a morally suspect hatha yoga guru as a source of inspiration to the author. The earlier volume was published in the year immediately prior to Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga, a book that was to usher in a new, public age for yoga and in which (as we shall see) there was no room for the hatha yogin. By 1915, it was probably clear to Vasu and his fraternal editor that if hatha texts themselves were available for appropriation and modernization, hatha yogis themselves remained embarrassing, impure guests at the modern Hindu table. Hatha yoga had to be appropriated from the yogin, and one of the ways this occurred was through appeals to modern science and medicine.


Basu, Dayananda, Paul: The Roots of Medical Hatha Yoga

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 a legitimate science and should not be disdained by the (Western) scientific community. S. C. Vasu’s brother and editor, Major Basu, was in fact one of the early, leading lights of the scientific enterprise of yoga that would come to full flower in India during the 1920s and 1930s with Sri Yogendra and Swami Kuvalayananda. We should note that recent scholarship on modern yoga has tended to overlook these early ventures and to assume that “scientific,” medical hatha yoga began with the experiments of Kuvalayananda and Yogendra. For instance, Joseph Alter (2004a) has considered these later developments in more detail than any other scholar of modern yoga but has not looked into their important precedents. Similarly, De Michelis has recently asserted that “the ‘medicalization’ of yoga, and its dialogue with science, started in the 1920s in India, primarily with the work of Sri Yogendra . . . and Swami Kuvalayananda.”  As a brief review of the early scientific orientations of Vasu and Basu shows, however, the dawn of hatha yoga as medical science arrived several decades earlier than has been supposed. The model that grew out of it had profound influences on the shape of the transnational yoga forms that would follow. Let us therefore briefly review some of these early rapprochements of hatha yoga and modern medical science.

In his “Prize Essay on the Hindu System of Medicine,” published in the Guy’s Hospital Gazette (London) in 1889 and cited in Vasu’s 1915 foreword to the SS, Major Basu asserts—in what is one of the very first public and international claims of tantric yoga’s scientific, medical status—that “better anatomy is given in the Tantras than in the medical works of the Hindus”. According to him, the Siva Sam!hitāgives “a description of the several ganglia and plexuses of the nervous system” and 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 “scientifiic” 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 Nâdîs, Chakras and Padmas ” of hatha yoga with the conduits of the spine and the plexuses of the anatomical body—an identification that is still pervasive in popular transnational hatha yoga today. Captain Basu’s enquiry is based on the eminently empirical, rationalistic question, “Are [the padmas and chakras ] real, or do they only exist in the imagination of the Tântrists?”  It is clear that for the “lotuses” and “wheels” of the hatha system to be taken seriously by his peers, they must be shown to have issued from proto-scientific observation rather than mere fancy (“imagination” here unmistakably connoting “non-rational”).

On this basis, Basu professes, “we nevertheless believe that the Tântrists obtained their knowledge about them by dissection.” Contrary to Basu’s assertion, we should note, there is no evidence whatever that “Tântrists,” or any other religious group in India, ever engaged in the dissection of corpses. In fact, the first dissection by a Hindu was probably undertaken in 1836 by Madhusūdana Gupta in Calcutta. As Bharati writes, “Ancient Indians never opened up dead bodies to study organs empirically. . . . The horror of defilement and ritual pollution was so strong in India that anatomical and physiological experimentation seemed until recently out of the question.” As far back as 1670, indeed, Bernier had noted the same horror among Indians with regard to anatomical dissection. 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.

This point can be illustrated further by a (possibly apocryphal) anecdote from the life of Hindu firebrand and founder of the Ārya Samāj, Dayananda Saraswati (1824–1883). On a tour of India in 1855, Dayananda pulls a corpse from the river and dissects it to ascertain the truth of the tantric cakras he has been reading about. When his search fails, he scornfully tosses his yogic texts (including the Hatha Yoga Pradı̄pikā) into the water. His experiment leads him to “the conclusion that with the exception of the Vedas, Patanjali and Samkhya, all other works on the science of yoga are false.”

While Basu’s optimism and Dayananada’s pessimism regarding the truth-value of hatha yogic texts are clearly at odds, they nonetheless have in common that they enthrone rational empiricism as monarch in the kingdom of yoga. Both the failed search of 1855 and the confident credo of 1888 are modern projects that stand in a contradictory relationship with a traditional conception of the tantric body as a constructed, “entextualised” entity, in which “imagination becomes a kind of action . . . and the forms that the body takes in ritual are a kind of knowing.” From the tantric perspective, the cakras are simply not observable physical phenomena but inscribed ritual processes: a notion that has largely escaped the attention of popular writers on hatha yoga from Basu onward. As Bharati argues, the yogic subtle body “is an object our imagination has to create.” This is not to say that cakras are not “real” in a very particular way: the point is that one would be hard-pressed to find them with a dissection scalpel or a camera. They are not, in other words, available for empirical or medical testing in the way that, say, ganglia are. As Wujastyk notes, the kind of thinking that prompts Dayananda to undertake his dissection, and which also lies behind Basu’s project to find cakras in plexuses, is based on the notion that the world is one and that the traditional and modern explanations of it are both true and can be made to coincide. Such thinking informs research on the yogic body through the twentieth century, from Kuvalayananda’s physiological experiments “between science and philosophy” in the 1920s and 1930s up to and beyond Hiroshi Motoyama’s cakra-detecting machines of the 1970s and 1980s.

Another vitally 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 Navı̄na Candra Pāla), 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 interment 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.” Copies were even burned on the grounds that the text was “offensive to the science of physiology and pathology.” 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. For example, Hermann Walter’s 1893 dissertation on the Hathayogapradı̄pikāat the University of Munich is, like Paul’s work, greatly concerned with the “extent to which the chakras correspond to an anatomical reality.” He notes the enormous therapeutic potential that an investigation into these matters might yield. Paul’s book, he declares, is “the only work that goes into more detail on the topic of hatha yoga and anatomy” and he seems to derive his notion of the potential medical applications offered by hatha yoga principally from Paul’s book.

Significantly, Paul did not glean his information about yoga directly from Indian yogins themselves but from textual sources and from one Captain Seymour, who had deserted the British army and escaped several mental institutions in England to “become a Yogi.” It may indeed seem ironic that this earliest study of hatha yoga as medical science is based on the account of a “gone-native” English informant as recorded by an anglicized Indian, but it is nonetheless typical of the way modern, Anglophone interpretations of yoga are filtered through apparently disparate cultural lenses, and of the lack of direct ethnographic contact and engagement with lineages of practicing yogins. Apart from Paul’s mediated experience of yogins through Seymour, information about hatha yoga practice in this period tends to remain exclusively textual.

The scientific imperative given expression by S. C. Vasu, Major Basu, and N. C. Paul and (in his own way) by Dayananda represents a new departure for yoga and tantra along scientific, rational lines and sets the agenda for the scientific study of yogic phenomena throughout the twentieth century. Indeed, Vasant Rele’s renowned physiological search for the kundalinı̄in the 1920s is itself based on Vasu’s translations of hatha yogic texts. These translations, shot through as they are with medical and scientific material (such as excerpts from the British Medical Journal on the benefits of respiratory exercises, represent a landmark in the popular promulgation of hatha yoga as medical science. Geoffrey Samuel notes with regard to Tibetan medicine’s encounter with the West that only those elements that can be readily assimilated into a materialist epistemology are retained, while those that do not “fit” are forgotten or rejected. It is clear that similar forces are at work in Anglophone hatha yoga as it negotiates its way into the Western scientific paradigm. That today some fourteen million Americans are recommended yoga by their therapist or doctor (Yoga Journal 2008 ) is in many respects a late consequence of yoga’s assimilation into medical science that began in the mid-nineteenth century.


Singleton, Mark. Yoga-Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford University Press, NY, 2010.