Tuesday, 24 January 2017

The Dharmaputrikā and the dangers of excessive practice.

MS Indic δ 16 (viii), Folio 395 v.
London Wellcome

Is it possible to get sick from excessive practice? They thought so in the 11th century.

Dr Christèle Barois (AyurYog Project, University of Vienna) is making some very exciting contributions to our understanding of the relationship between Yoga and Ayurveda through her research of the Dharmaputrikā, an c. 11th century Sanskrit text:

The Dharmaputrikā, which is a systematic exposé on yoga, provides us with new elements concerning the relationship between yoga and āyurveda in medieval India, as it fully integrates medical knowledge and practices into the yogic process it describes. Thus, the Dharmaputrikā sheds light on the appropriation of some aspects of classical Indian medicine by yogins towards the end of the first millenium. This remarkable feature is manifest in chapter 4, which mentions the appearance of diseases due to excessive practice (atyabhyāsa) in the course of the conquest of the five bodily winds (pañcajaya), and in chapter 10, which describes the medical treatment (cikitsā) of diseases that arise from an imbalance of humors caused by incorrect breathing practices.
A full translation and critical edition of the Dharmaputrikā is a much anticipated output of the AyurYog Project in coming years. 

Dr Barois offers her translation of the āsana section of this text in her latest blogpost:
Eight Yoga Postures in the Dharmaputrikā

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Women's March

Three ladies visit a Yoginī
Provincial Mughal, India, 18th century (20 x 14cm)

#WomensMarch #nonviolence #ahimsa

Friday, 13 January 2017

Recipes for Immortality

and the intoxicating Alchemy of South and Inner Asia

Download this article as a PDF

Samples of mercury as an elixir in Tibetan traditions.

In recent times, technology giants such as Google have enthusiastically funded research aimed specifically at harnessing technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls ageing and lifespan. It is their hope to develop interventions that may assist people ‘to lead longer and healthier lives’. However, the ability to live indefinitely, or at least improve the quality and length of life, has been a human fascination over the millennia. Long before digital experts grappled with the idea of e-immortality and the possibility of living eternally through online identities, human cultures have attempted to transcend the inevitability of entropy and death.

In October 2016, a gathering at the University of Vienna became a cauldron of ideas and lively discussions aimed at exploring longevity practices, treatment techniques and formulations. As part of the ERC-funded AyurYog Project, Dr Dagmar Wujastyk (University of Vienna) and her team hosted an extraordinary two-day workshop of international scholars to discuss (and experiment with) concepts of Rejuvenation, Longevity and Immortality that have been documented in the premodern literature of South and Inner Asia.

Dr Wujastyk opened the discussions with her explanation of rasāyana in Sanskrit medical and alchemical literature. As one of eight subject areas of Indian medicine (āyurveda), the doctrine of rasāyana is generally concerned with:
“preserving youthful vigour, promoting longevity, mental power and strength, and eliminating disease”.
However, the term rasāyana refers not only to medicines and substances, but also to the methodology of rasāyana therapy. In addition to reading Sanskrit passages, Dr Wujastyk provided the audience with the opportunity to taste medicines based on recipes found in the oldest treatise known on Āyurveda, the Carakasaṃhitā (circa. 1st century C.E.). We tried āmalaka (Indian gooseberry) as a candy, which aids digestion, and brahmarasāyana, a sticky black paste that is consumed for rejuvenation purposes. No one hesitated!

Watch Dr Wujastyk's presentation here.

Brahmarasāyana - a sticky black paste that is consumed for rejuvenation purposes.

The conference surveyed knowledge across the Indian sub-continent, from northern Pakistan and Tibet to southern Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. Diverse concepts of longevity and practices aimed at immortality where examined. Overall, the conference programme successfully engaged scholars and enthusiasts by challenging their views through experimentation, discussion and new research findings.

PhD candidate Ilona Kedzia (Jagiellonian University) examined techniques for mastering deathlessness in Tamil Siddha literature. After describing a largely unedited corpus of texts, she focused on recipes for drugs used in kāyakaṟpam (Sanskrit: kāyakalpam), a therapy designed for prolonging life. A striking example was the consumption of urine ideally captured from a ‘young boy fed with sweets’. The urine is boiled with slaked lime and purified for three days before forming the substance known as amuri, which is consumed over a period of 40 days to strengthen the body, remove phlegm and ultimately achieve immortality (Pulastyar Nāṉakaṟpam 222: 72-3). Ms Kedzia preliminary anthropological research reveals that many of these methods of preparation and consumption are still used today.

Watch Ms. Kedzia's presentation here.

Dr Claudia Preckel (Ruhr-University Bochum), a specialist in Unani medicine (Ṭibb-e yūnānī), described some of the sophisticated elixirs of the body in Arabic sources. She explained that although many of the ideas originate from Greek medical works, the formulations and practices were further developed in Arabic, Persian and South Asian (Muslim) literature. In her analysis, Dr Preckel noted the linguistic connections (and some disconnections) in terminology as concepts were translated from Greek and Latin to Arabic, Persian and Urdu, and later intermingled with Indian sub-continents medical concepts such as rasa.

Dr Francis Zimmermann (EHESS) brought us closer to the present day with his talk on rasāyana in the modern market place. The industrial-scale production of rejuvenation medicines in India has followed from the national standardisation of Āyurvedic ingredients and recipes in the Ayurvedic Formulary of India (published in 1978), and the commercial success of companies such as Himalayan Wellness (formerly The Himalayan Drug Co.). Dr Zimmermann highlighted the inspiration that Sanskrit literature is offering these companies in their drive for scientific innovation in the development of proprietary medicines. The database of traditional knowledge has become a valuable resource used in litigation by the Indian government when battling US (and other international) companies for their misappropriation of medicinal knowledge in the form of patents, proprietary rights and commercial variants.

Interestingly, Dr Zimmermann’s research has also identified the change in audience for such formulations. Ancient recipes that were traditionally aimed at maintaining the virility of young men have been re-packaged and marketed to the growing number of appearance and health-conscious women of India. Pharmaceutical companies are exploiting a cultural shift in a female generation who are vulnerable to new social views about ageing and sexual dysfunction. This is generating a high demand for rejuvenation products for women.

Samples of Ayurvedic Medicines and rasāyana ingredients

A key term for age in medieval Sanskrit literature is vayas. Dr Christèle Barois (University of Vienna) examined its meaning in various contexts, including yoga, alchemy and some diagnostic procedures of Āyurveda. Her research revealed medieval understandings of age and attitudes towards it. One such example is the idea of vayas as the ‘useful’ lifespan of a person, which is said to be only 20 to 30 years, yet may be extended to 100 years by specific Āyurvedic treatments.

Some of the most fascinating claims for life extension can be found in the textual corpus on Yoga. Three specialists of this vast literature examined context-specific examples from the periods of classical, medieval and modern Yoga.

After many years of constructing critical editions of the Carakasaṃhitā and the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, Dr Philipp Maas (University of Leipzig) was able to dissect the meaning of rasāyana in classical Sāṅkhya-Yoga. With ease, Dr Maas took us back to the ancient past of 4th-century greater Magadha where Vedic Brahmanism and Śramaṇa religions were intermingling and producing new fusions of philosophical and religious ideas. He discussed the complexity of dealing with textual sources and, yet, convincingly argued for the distinct meaning of the term rasāyana in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra as “an elixir of longevity used in a different realm of the cosmos”, which appears unrelated to its meaning in classical Āyurveda. In fact, Dr Maas’s argument prompted some academics in the audience to reconsider Caraka’s definition of rasāyana, which led to a lively scholarly debate.

Watch Dr Maas' presentation here.

Dr Jason Birch (SOAS, University of London) examined concepts of rejuvenation and immortality in Medieval Yoga traditions. In particular, he focussed on the use of herbs, which are mainly credited with the attainment of special yogic powers (siddhis) and the healing of diseases. Dr Birch noted that it is the attainment of immortality that is more closely linked to the soteriological aim of liberation, rather than rejuvenation and longevity, which are only mentioned incidentally. The textual evidence suggests that immortality was understood literally, insofar as it was accepted that liberated Yogins could live forever in an ageless and disease-free body. Interestingly, Dr Birch mentioned several traveler's accounts, such as that of Marco Polo, which report of 'yogis' taking pills for longevity. Yet, he concluded by stating that herbs never appear in Yoga texts as an essential component for the practice of Yoga nor for achieving its ultimate goal.

Watch Dr Birch's presentation here.

In keeping with the theme of immortality, Dr Suzanne Newcombe (Inform, LSE) analysed modern accounts of longevity claims by Sadhus and other Yoga adepts, in particular, the practice of kāyakalpa. She identified the folk narrative that enables such stories to persist in India: 
“The immortality story is compelling and resonates across different concerns at every re-telling. Ambiguity of goals is part of its narrative strength - and experiential truths can feel more important - and be more transformative - than empirical confirmation.” 
Dr Newcombe observed that the ambiguity in meaning given to the term yoga has enabled it to remain relevant to diverse groups of people throughout the modern period and that this ambiguity has assisted in the “longevity” of Yoga. Her research also revealed that the emerging concepts of ‘human hibernation’ and ‘hypnotism’ in Western medical literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were used by some to describe the meditative attainments of Yogins and this resulted in a conflation of world views.

Watch Dr Newcombe's presentation here.

The University's chemistry lab for the Alchemical demonstration.

On the final day of the conference, the University’s chemistry lab was turned into an alchemical foundry for ancient Sanskrit recipes. Initially, academics more familiar with comforts of lecture halls showed signs of hesitation in this sterile environment. However, the interactive nature of the experiments conducted by the alchemical specialist Andrew Mason, broke down more than materials. Mr Mason dissolved barriers of communication across disciplines and subject matter. Indologists were bubbling with enthusiasm as they bumped shoulders with chemistry professors and medical students. Everyone was keen to glimpse the congealing of miraculous substances such as mercury. This interdisciplinary alchemical extraordinaire left the sweet taste of new knowledge tinged with the sour smell of cooked sulphur.

It seemed fitting that the final phase of our journey to eternity took place in the mountain peaks of Tibet.

Dr Cathy Cantwell (University of Oxford) shared her reflections on rasāyana, bcud len and related practices in Nyingma (rnying ma) tantric ritual. She explained that bcud len is understood as "imbibing the essence juice” and often takes the form of a subsidiary practice or pill in this tradition. It is equivalent to the Sanskrit term, rasāyana, “but in Tibetan Buddhist ritual manuals, both terms occur, apparently with slightly different connotations”. Dr Cantwell presented vividly coloured photographs from her fieldwork in Tibet. Her images brought to life the communal and ritualistic processes that surround the creation and distribution of these sacred compounds.

A sample of Tibetan precious pills and elixirs.

Packaged like parcels of hope in bright coloured silk wrappings, we were given the opportunity to examine samples of these compounds by Dr Barbara Gerke (University of Vienna), who presented an account of the use of mercury as a chülen (life giving substance) in Tibetan traditions. Dr Gerke contrasted the prolific use of mercury in recent times with the scarcity of references to it in pre-seventeenth century literature. The premodern context of mercury was mainly restricted to the attainment of supernatural powers by some Buddhist monks, whereas today it has become popular as an elixir for longevity among the lay community in Tibet and China.

As a practitioner and teacher of Yoga and a consumer of alternative well-being products, this conference made me question some of the assumptions underlying my own practice and lifestyle, particularly in my pursuit of health and transcendence through Yoga techniques and Āyurvedic medicines that are rooted in medieval world views quite different to my own. The conference exposed the complexity that arises not only from the collision of medieval traditions with the modern world, but also from the different cultural contexts, shifting demographics (e.g. age and gender) and the commercial pressures which are now shaping these disciplines. 

A true camaraderie formed as participants navigated this complexity by mapping the fault lines between Yoga’s transcendent and worldly aims, Āyurveda's therapeutic and purgative formulations, and the general divide between scientific and traditional knowledge. Yet, above all, what remained tangible was the perennial fascination humans have for overcoming or delaying the inevitability of death.

Purification of substances with Ghee.

Download this article as a PDF

Monday, 9 January 2017

Postural Punishment in Indian Schools

Download this article as a PDF

Poster No. 14 in the 'Children of India' series
published by Indian Book Depot (Map House), Delhi

Transmission of knowledge in South Asian societies has played a role in shaping the pedagogy used to teach Yoga in its variety of forms across the world. Contemporary debates on such topics as the power dynamics of teacher-student relationships, adjustments, consent, healthy boundaries, mythologising practices/gurus, etc., face the challenge of disentangling cultural norms from the idiosyncrasies of gurus and their teachings. 

In an effort to understand the influence that cultural context plays in forming some of these teaching methods, a valuable historical resource is the collection of surveys by William Adam1 on the indigenous teaching methods in vernacular education in the early nineteenth century. These extensive field reports were conducted in north India, especially Bengal and Bihar, between 1835 and 1838 in a variety of native languages (namely Bengali, Hindi and Urdu and occasionally Persian and Sanskrit). They provide a window into the educational framework, both public and private, that existed in village communities prior to British interference.

In the case of public education, each village aimed to support a guru-mahashay (school master) charged with providing a secular education, in the main, of basic literacy and arithmetic at schools known as Pathshalas.Adam estimated that around one-hundred thousand of these unregulated schools existed across the region at the time.

As a supplement to Adam's census data, a contemporary missionary, Rev. Alexander Duff, wrote in the Calcutta Review (Vol. II, No. IV, Art. I, p. 334),3 a descriptive account of 'The System of Discipline' in use by guru-mahashays. Duff's account includes a list of fifteen different kinds of punishments, all corporal in nature, which he considered 'of most ordinary occurrence' (see below). It should be noted that the application of such punishments depended solely on the guru’s discretion. Also, Rev. J. Long1, who wrote about Adam's work, states that these techniques were gradually falling out of use.

It is interesting to consider the similarities between several of these punishments and some āsanas of yoga. For example, standing on one leg (similar to vṛkṣāsana), holding one leg behind the head (as in ekapādaśīrṣāsana), binding both hands around the legs in a seated or standing forward-fold (a punishment called murga that is still used in India today4 and is somewhat similar in form to the standing version of titibhāsana), and hanging upside-down from a tree (known as tapakār āsan in the Jog Pradīpyakā). Here, the line between a corporal punishment and a yoga posture becomes as thin as the historical one between tapas and yoga. The distinction is a matter of context and interpretation. Nonetheless, one might infer that using such postures as a form of punishment in schools may stem from their association with ascetics (tapasvin).

“A boy is made to bend forward with his face toward the ground; a heavy brick is then placed on his back, and another on his neck; and should he let either of them fall, within the prescribed period of half an hour or so, he is punished with the cane.
Or, a boy is condemned to stand for half an hour or an hour on one foot; and, should he shake or quiver, or let down the uplifted leg before the time, he is severely punished.
Again, a boy is made to sit on the floor in an exceedingly constrained position, with one leg turned up behind his neck.
Or, still worse, he is made to sit with his feet resting on two bricks, and his head bent down between both legs, with his hands twisted round each leg so as painfully to catch the ears.
Again, a boy is made to hang for a few minutes, with his head downwards, from the branch of a neighbouring tree. 
Or, his hands and feet are bound with cords; to these members so bound a rope is fastened; and the boy is then hoisted up by means of a pully attached to the beams or rafters of the school.
Again, nettles, dipped in water, are applied to the body, which becomes irritated and swollen; the pain is excruciating and often lasts a whole day; but, however great the itching and the pain, the sufferer is not allowed to rub or touch the skin for relief, under the dread of a flagellation in addition. 
Or the boy is put up in a sack along with some nettles, or a cat, or some other noisome creature, and then rolled along the ground. 
Again, the fingers of both hands are inserted across each other with a stick between and two sticks without drawn close together and tied. 
Or, a boy is made to measure so many cubits on the ground, by marking it along with the tip of his nose. 
Again, four boys are made to seize another, two holding the arms and two the feet; they then alternately swing him and throw him violently to the ground. 
Or, two boys are made to seize another by the ears; and, with these organs well outstretched, he is made to run along for the amusement of the bystanders. 
Again, a boy is constrained to pull his own ears; and, if he fail to extend them sufficiently, he is visited with a sorer chastisement.
Or, two boys, when both have given offence, are made to knock their heads several times against each other.
Again, the boy who first comes to school in the morning receives one stroke of the cane on the palm of the hand, the next receives two strokes, and so each in succession, as he arrives, receives a number of strokes equal to the number of boys that preceded him, - the first being the privileged administrator of them all.” 

(Duff 1846: 334; repeated in Adam and Long 1868: 10)

The biographical accounts of Adam5 and Duff,respectively, reveal two ambitious Scotsman with somewhat opposing agendas. Adam mastered the Sanskrit language, as well as Bengali, and worked closely with progressive contemporaries, such a Rammohun Roy, to produce translations of important texts, such as a Bengali translation of the New Testament and the English translation of the Vedas. He was later appointed Professor of Oriental Literature at Harvard7. His passion for avante-garde views led him to become an active abolitionist in the World Anti-Slavery Movement, a founder of the influential British India Society in 1839, and an advocate for women's equality. Conversely, Duff was an active interventionist, who successfully established the Grand Assembly's Institution in Calcutta and was instrumental in establishing government policy that promoted the English language and a western-style education at the expense of indigenous languages and modes of education.

I would like to thank Jason Birch and Matthew Remski for their very constructive comments on a draft of this post.

Download this article as a PDF


1  W. Adam and J. Long, Adam’s Reports on Vernacular Education in Bengal and Behar, Calcutta, 1868.

2  Nigel Crook (Editor), The Transmission of Knowledge in South Asia: Essays on Education, Religion, History, and PoliticsSchool of Oriental and African Studies, 23 May 1996.

3  Alexander Duff (Editor), Art. I The state of Indigenous Education in Bengal and BeharNo. IV, Vol. II, Second Edition, Calcutta Review Vol. II, October - December, 1844, Third Edition, Calcutta: W. Thacker and Co.; London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1846.

4  Jha Madan Mohan, From Special To Inclusive Education In India: Case Studies Of Three Schools In DelhiPearson Education India, 1 September 2010.

 S. C. Sanial, The Rev. William Adam,  Bengal: Past and Present
, Vol. VIII. Series 15 - 16 Art. XVI p. 251, Journal of the Calcutta Historical Society (January - June, 1914)

 George Smith, The Life of Alexander Duff D.D., LL.D., London: Hooder and Stoughton (1879)

 Josiah Quincy, The History of Harvard University, Volume II, p. 390, Cambridge: John Owen (1840)

Related Post

Visual Evidence for Posture as Punishment in Indian Schools (7 May 2017)