Yoga Exhibit Review by Ram

Fellow Yogin-s and Yoginī-s

It was nice to see you all, most of whom I have not met. The tour was a bit too short for one to look at all the exhibits and grasp the breadth and depth. Here are some of my reflections based on my visit earlier (when I spent about three hours, a record for this impatient person) and the docent led tour. I thought it may be worthwhile for me to share this with you all.

Three aspects of the Absolute, from a manuscript of the Nath Charit, 1823

Three aspects of the Absolute, from a manuscript of the Nath Charit, 1823

        The organization appears to be chronological, but I think it more like moving from esoteric to exoteric exploration of the vast field called Yoga. From this perspective, the first exhibit hall deals with the core of yoga. The docent gave the etymology of yoga ( from the verb yuj ‘to yoke) to mean yoking, joining. As students of yoga sutras you also know it means samādhi. The common meaning creates the impression that we are connecting two things- me with puruṣa. If, on the other hand if one understands the meaning to be union, there are really no two but One non-dual, defying any ideation or conceptualization, definition, that is beyond words. This was the first golden non-defining space in the pictures she showed.

        As a student of philosophy I find the non-duality, that is, there are no defining distinctions exist in reality: and, appreciation of this Truth is the goal of all ‘paths’- variously called mokṣa, nirvāṇa (nibbāna), asamprajñatasamādhi, kaivalya, satori – depending on the system one chooses to follow. Yoga is all encompassing view as presented by Patañjali in his Yogasūtras. This is the reason one finds many different religions follow this yoga path we saw in the first few exhibits.

        In terms of practice, there were different ways within this broad umbrella of Yoga. Basically, there is yantra, mantra and tantra paths, more often they merge in many practices. Yantra method is more prevalent in Buddhistic practices (yantra is called maṇḍala – there is a Buddhist maṇḍala exhibit running concurrently at the museum). In Hindu practices also the yantra worship is prevalent (though I do not remember to have seen any of this in the exhibits). In South India śrīvidyā meditators use this type of worship, invoking Goddess in the yantra. Closely related to yantra is tantra. This is where one comes across mention of Kuṇḍalinī power and cakra-s, centers in the human body. In the tradition, the body is believed to have seven cakra-s located along the spine and each cakra has a female deity associated with it. These seven deities are manifestation of Goddess since any power, as the Sanskrit term śakti implies is a feminine gender substantive. They are generally referred to as sapta-matṛka-s, seven mothers – they are Brāhmaṇī, Māheśvarī, Kaumārī, Vaiṣṇavī, Vārāhī, Indrāṇī, and Chāmundā, or Yamī. (Ref: Encyclopedia Britannica, diacritical marks are made by me, not in the reference cited) There were three icons from Kāñcīpuram temple in South India. Once any part of an icon is broken it becomes unfit for worship, so it is removed from the temple: one sees a large number of such disfigured icons in many museums in many countries. The question as to how so many had chopped off limbs, however, is not mentioned, either in docent led tours or even in the write-ups. Historically, when the Islamic conquest took place, since that religion does not tolerate any worship of any image or idol, the conquerors methodically went about chopping off limbs of as many idols in temples and where-ever they can see them.

     There was a mention by the docent of worshiping Goddesses, offering wine, blood etc., Unfortunately what was not made clear was the fact this is a minor branch of tantra, often called vāmācāratantra. The few practitioners of this tantra use whatever is not conducive for spiritual progress of the seeker – madhu, māmsa, maithuna (wine, flesh and sexual intercourse) – as an integral part of practice, use them with the idea of transcending them to gain kaivalya. But the majority of tantric practitioners eschew this path and temple priests from which temple these icons were taken will not go anywhere near things like wine, blood, flesh etc., since they are considered aśuci (impure). Unfortunately there was only sensationalism in the presentation and not perspective.

     One may also wonder as to how only yoginīs are mentioned as deities and not yogin-s. This is farther from truth. Both Śiva,  Kṛṣṇa and hayagrīva (both are manifestations of Viṣṇu) are worshiped as master yogin-s in the tradition.

     The second exhibit hall dwells into exoteric aspects of yoga – powers normal and paranormal (latter are described in Yogasūtras (Ch. 3, Vibhūtipāda, and cautioned against pursuing them as well). This degradation of the primary goal of yoga took place in later centuries. Interestingly. the third exhibit hall goes back to the source, one of rediscovering and elaborating on the spiritual angle of yoga in contrast to power and exhibitionism in the previous set of exhibits.

Hope you find this useful and complementary to what you heard from the docent and what little time you had to see them without the docent.

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