Friday, 30 June 2017

Advice on Āsana in the Śivayogapradīpikā

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Siddhāsana and Padmāsana.
Schmidt, Richard. 1908.
Fakire und Fakirtum im alten und modernen Indien: Yoga-Lehre und Yoga-Praxis nach den indischen Originalquellen.
Berlin: Hermann Barsdorf.

The Śivayogapradīpikā (c. 15th century), or “Lamp on Śiva’s Yoga” is an important and overlooked late-medieval yoga text from south India that uniquely integrates the theory and praxis of yoga within the devotional framework (bhakti) of ritual worship (pūjā). Little scholarly attention has yet been brought to bear on this text, although its prominence within south Indian Haṭha and Rājayoga traditions is attested by commentaries and citations of the Śivayogapradīpikā in several later texts on yoga.2 My ongoing dissertation research at Harvard University aims to assemble the first critical edition, translation, and in-depth study of the Śivayogapradīpikā, based on the collation of over a dozen Sanskrit manuscripts and several printed editions collected from libraries and archives across south India. In this short article, I’ll provide a brief introduction to the text, followed by an exposé of one of its instructional gems: advice on the practice of yogic posture (āsana).

An Introduction to the Text

The Śivayogapradīpikā is attributed to an author named Cennasadāśivayogī, about whom little is known beyond the text itself, although evidence suggests that he was likely a Vīraśaiva (“Heroic Devotee of Śiva”) — the form of devotional Śaivism found predominantly in the Karnataka region which traces its history to Basava, the renowned twelfth-century philosopher, poet, and statesman. Based on the extant manuscript records and commentarial traditions, the text was likely composed in the Karnataka or Tamil Nadu regions of south India around the second half of the fifteenth century, and thus falls between the nexus of the late medieval and early modern periods. As an unstudied text, it offers an important historical window onto the bricolage of Sanskrit intellectual, religious, and yoga traditions active in south India prior to the colonial period.

The Śivayogapradīpikā comprises five chapters (paṭala) and approximately 290 verses. Its teachings are unique among the corpus of second-millennium Sanskrit yoga treatises for a number of important reasons.

The soteriological goal of its yoga system, like other medieval Yogaśāstras, is the attainment of the stone-like supra-mental state of samādhi (also known as sahajā, unmanī, or amanaska) described by the author in Vedāntic terms as the oneness of the individual (jivātman) and supreme soul (paramātman) (ŚYP 3.48), and elsewhere, given the Vīraśaiva inflection of our author, as the non-dual (advaita) state of oneness with the liṅga (ŚYP 3.63). The text also extends the possibility of the yogin becoming “equal to Śiva” (śivatulya, ŚYP 3.56).

The Śivayogapradīpikā teaches the standard tetrad of medieval yogas, namely: Mantrayoga, Layayoga, Haṭhayoga, and Rājayoga — only it understands their methods as a progressive curriculum leading to Śivayoga, a unique form of Rājayoga intended for devotees of Śiva. Here, the traditional eight auxiliaries of yoga (aṣṭāṅgayoga) and the physical techniques of Haṭhayoga are reinterpreted as a method of internal ritual worship of the god Śiva (śivapūjā) — located not within the inner sanctum of the temple, but on the altar of the heart within the mind of the yogin. Thus, unlike other contemporaneous Haṭhayoga texts which tend to disavow any particular sectarian order or religious affiliation (Mallinson 2014; Birch 2015), the Śivayogapradīpikā is an unabashedly Śaiva text, aimed at devotees of Śiva. And yet, within the world of late medieval south India, I argue that the author sought to make the text appeal to Śaivas and non-Śaivas alike,3 including both renunciates and householders — a message we will see invoked in the Śivayogapradīpikā’s advice on yogic posture (āsana).

Āsanas for All

After establishing the proper context for the ritual worship of Śiva, the author describes the methods of Aṣṭāṅgayoga, which includes techniques of Haṭhayoga. Verses 2.13-15 provide recommendations for the practice of āsana, beginning with a set list of ten postures.
Then, these ten best āsanas are enumerated together — Accomplished (siddha), Lotus (ambuja), Auspicious (svastika), Liberated (mukta), Hero (vīra), Blessed (bhadra), Peacock (ahibhuj), Lion (kesari), Cow-faced (gomukha), and Comfortable Posture (sukhāsana).4
The author Cennasadāśivayogī simply lists the postures as such and provides no descriptions, although a later Kannada commentary,5 attributed to the Vīraśaiva scholar Basavārādhya (c. 17/18th century), furnishes instructions for each āsana by quoting the Vasiṣṭhasaṃhitā.6 Each of these āsanas are seated postures, save for the non-seated balancing posture, the Peacock, known more commonly as mayūrāsana. Here, however, the author has employed an unusual Sanskrit synonym, ahibhuj, which translates literally as the “snake-eater.” That peacocks eat snakes is well-known in India, and it is for this reason that they are thought to be immune to deadly poisons. Thus, in the Haṭhapradīpikā, Peacock Posture is said to make the stomach and digestive fires so strong that the yogin can even consume poison! (HP 1.31).7

Mayūrāsana. The Peacock Posture.
Mahāmandir, Jodhpur. Late 18th - 19th century.
Photograph by Lenscraft.

Likewise, rather than the more common padma for Lotus posture, the author employs the word ambuja, literally “water-born,” a common epithet for the lotus flower. Such variant names serve as a poignant reminder of the fluidity of āsana names across Sanskrit texts and traditions in the premodern period. In this case, it is unclear if these variants reflected a difference in orthopraxis, that is, of the proper manner to physically perform the āsana. More likely, the author uses these variant names simply to satisfy Sanskrit poetical and metrical purposes.

Next, the author simplifies his list of ten āsanas into three, which are then uniquely prescribed to types of yoga practitioners according to their station in life.
Lotus (ambuja) is for householders, Accomplished (siddha) is for those on paths other than householders (i.e., ascetics), and Comfortable Posture (sukhāsana) is for all — this threefold [division] is best.8
Through this verse we might gain some practical insight into the anticipated audience of the Śivayogapradīpikā, as we are informed that this yoga is available not only to ascetics but to householders (gṛhin), and indeed to all. It is interesting to note that Lotus posture is prescribed for householders, while Accomplished (siddha) is recommended for non-householders. This is because the application of siddhāsana requires pressing the the foot against the penis (e.g., dṛḍhaṃ vinyaset meḍhre pādam, HP 1.35), symbolizing, if not directly causing, celibacy. Thus, it is prescribed for celibate ascetics and not progenitive householders.9 However, for those who are unable to perform padmāsana or siddhāsana, the author reassures us, Comfortable Posture (sukhāsana) is available to all — or indeed, any preferred āsana from this list.
Indeed, any such āsana may be praised and mastered. Seated in the āsana preferred among those, the [yogin] should dwell in a solitary place.10
The author concludes this short section on yogic posture, stating that while the previous three were recommended according to one’s station, in effect, any posture on this list may be selected, so long as its recommended by tradition (praśasta), and mastered (vaśa) by the yogin. Once established, the yogin should take his seat in a secluded and solitary location (viviktathāna). The Śivayogapradīpikā then goes on to describe such an ideal locale for yogic practice, the original yogaśālā, otherwise known as the medieval yoga hut (yogamaṭha).

Śivayogapradīpikā Witnesses

Ped 1978 [1907]. Śivayogadīpikā: mantra-laya-haṭha-rājākhyacaturvidhayogānāṃ vivaraṇam Sadāśivabrahmendrapañcaratnaṃ ca. Dvitīyāvṛttiḥ. Ānandaśramasaṃskṛtagranthāvaliḥ; granthāṅkaḥ 139. Puṇyākhyapattanam: Ānandāśramaḥ.

Ked Śivayōgapradīpikā: Basavārādhyaṭīkāsamētā. M.M. Kalaburgi, and Nāgabhūṣana Śāstri, eds. Śrī Basavēśvarapīṭha taraṅga ; 4. Dhāravāḍa: Kannaḍa Adhyayanapīṭha, Karnāṭaka Viśvavidyālaya.

T1 Pondicherry IFP T.0871. Transcription of MGOL D.4385, Grantha.

T2 Pondicherry IFP T.1019d. Transcription of IFP RE.20181, Grantha(?).

T3 Pondicherry IFP T.1027a. Transcription of unknown ms. Tulu(?).

Other Sources

Birch, Jason. 2015. “The Yogatārāvalī and the Hidden History of Yoga.” Nāmarūpa 20: 4-13.

Haṭhapradīpikā. 1998. Ed. and trans., Swami Digambarji. Second edition. Lonavla, Pune: Kaivalyadhama. 

Mallinson, James. 2014. “Haṭhayoga’s Philosophy: A Fortuitous Union of Non-Dualities.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 42 (1): 225–47.

Vasiṣṭasaṃhitā. 1984. Ed., Swami Digambarji, Dr. Pitambar Jha, and Shri Gyan Shankar Sahay. Lonavla, Pune: Kaivalyadhama.


1 I wish to thank Jason Birch and Jacqueline Hargreaves for their kind invitation to write this post for The Luminescent, and for their valuable and astute editorial remarks. 

2 The Śivayogapradīpikā was rendered into Kannada prose with a commentary known as the Paramārthaprakāśike by Nijaguṇa Śivayogī, who may have been the same author of the important Vīraśaiva compendium the Vivekacintāmani (c. 15th century). Another Kannada commentary was written by the Vīraśaiva scholar Basavārādhya (c. 17/18th century). Citations of the Śivayogapradīpikā in later compilations on yoga include the Yogacintāmaṇi of Śivānanda (early 17th century), the Upāsanāsārasaṅgraha (17th century), the later Yogasārasaṅgraha and a commentary on the Yogatārāvalī, the Rājatarala of Rāmasvāmipaṇḍita. 

3 In the effort of inclusivity, the author Cennasadāśivayogī assures his audience that “Truly, there is no difference between Śivayoga and Rājayoga” (ŚYP 1.13ab na bhedaḥ śivayogasya rājayogasya tattvataḥ /).

4 Śivayogapradīpikā 2.13
siddhāmbujasvastikamuktavīrabhadrāhibhukkesarigomukhāni |
sukhāsanaṃ caiva samaṅkitāni tato daśemāni varāsanāni ||

2.13a siddhāmbuja- ] Ked T1 T2 ; siddhāmbujaṃ Ped ; siddhāmbujaḥ T3 • -mutkavīra- ] Ped Ked T1 ; muktavī T2 ; yuktavīra T3     2.13b -bhadrāhibhukkesarigomukhāni ] Ped T1 ; bhadrāhibhuksiṃhagavāṃ mukhāni Ked ; bhadrabhuksiṃhagavāṃ mukhāni T2 ; bhadrābhibhuksiṃhajago mukhāni T3     2.13c samaṅkitāni ] Ped Ked T3 ; samāhitāni T1 ; samāṃtāni T2     2.13d tato daśemāni ] Ked T1 ; tathā daśaitāni Ped ; tato daśamānī T2 ; tato daśaitāni T3

5 I am grateful to Shubha Shanthamurthy for her translation of Basavārādhya’s Kannada commentary.

6 The āsanas in the Vasiṣṭhasaṃhitā likely draw from the earlier Vaiṣṇava Pāñcarātra text, the Vimānārcanākalpa, which teaches a similar list of nine āsanas. I am grateful to James Mallinson for drawing this to my attention. 

7 I thank Jason Birch for this observation. 

8 Śivayogapradīpikā 2.14
gṛhiṇām ambujaṃ siddhaṃ gṛhasthetaravartmanām |
sukhāsanaṃ ca sarveṣām ity etat trividhaṃ varam ||

2.14a gṛhiṇām ambujaṃ siddhaṃ ] Ked T3 ; gṛhiṇām ambujaṃ nityaṃ Ped ; gṛhiṇām ambujamukhaṃ T1 ; gṛhiṇām ajaṃ siddhaṃ T2     2.14b gṛhasthetaravartmanām ] Ked ; siddhaṃ tv itaravartmanām Ped ; siddhādi vanavāsinām T1 ; grahasthetaravartmanām T2 T3     2.14d ity etat trividhaṃ ] Ked Ped ; madhy etat trividhaṃ T2 • varam ] Ked Ped T3 ; param T1 T2

9 I thank Jason Birch and James Mallinson for clarifying this. 

10 Śivayogapradīpikā 2.15
yāni kāni praśastāni hy āsanāni vaśāni ca |
teṣv abhīṣṭāsanāsīno viviktasthānam āśrayet ||

2.15b hy āsanāni vaśāni ca ] Ped ; hy āsanāni samāni ca Ked ; āsanāni vaśāni ca T1 T2 ; āsaneṣu vaśāni ca T3     

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Saturday, 24 June 2017



A sage, Vyāsa?
Maharashtra, 18th century. Painted on paper.
According to register, Recto Album Leaf, Folio 38. 1974,0617,0.14.37.
The Trustees of the British Museum.

Over the last hundred years, various scholars have noted evidence indicating that the Sūtra and the Bhāṣya sections of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra were compiled by a single author called Patañjali. In recent years, Dr Philipp Maas has found further evidence in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra and other Sanskrit works, and has argued convincingly for it.1

However, the claim that the Sūtra was composed by Patañjali and the Bhāṣya by Vyāsa became the predominant view after the composition of the fourteenth-century Sarvadarśanasaṅgraha, which is the first source that clearly states the separate authorship of Patañjali and Vyāsa.

A good example of this view being expressed in a work on yoga is seen in the following two verses of an unpublished commentary on the Yogatārāvalī called the Rājatarala by Rāmasvāmipaṇḍita:
I meditate on the primal, boundless lord Śeṣa (i.e., Patañjali), who is born from the consciousness conceived by multitudes of the best yogins. The dirt of his feet is greatly honoured, his eyes are wide like lotuses, he composed the venerable Yogasūtra and his special abode is the heart lotus.

We praise Vedavyāsa, whose dwelling is the heart. He arose as a partial incarnation of Viṣṇu, composed the Yogabhāṣya and his feet should be worshipped by multitudes of yogins.2
The Rājatarala (The Central Gem on Rājayoga) quotes the Śivayogapradīpikā (circa late 15th century) by name, which means it was composed after the 15th century. The fact that it synthesises teachings on Patañjali’s yoga with those of Haṭha and Rājayoga traditions suggests that it was written sometime during the 16th - 18th centuries, which was the era when this synthesis appears in other compilations on yoga, such as the Yogacintāmaṇi, the Yogasārasaṅgraha, the Yogasiddhāntacandrikā and so on. 

Nearly all yoga compendiums of the 16th - 18th centuries, which we have consulted, mention Vyāsa as the author of the Bhāṣya. A possible exception is the seventeenth-century Yuktabhavadeva (1.297 – 300), which quotes a passage from both the Sūtra and the Bhāṣya as the work of Patañjali.

Krishna and the Pandavas being told by the sage Vyāsa
where to obtain the horse for the sacrifice (aśvamedha).

British Library Manuscript: Or12076 f4v
The Razmnāmah, the Persian translation by Naqīb Khān of the Mahābhārata.
Sub-imperial Mughal, 1598.


1 See Philipp Maas, "A Concise Historiography of Classical Yoga Philosophy" in: Eli Franco (ed.), Periodization and Historiography of Indian Philosophy. Vienna: Sammlung de Nobili, Institut für Südasien-, Tibet- und Buddhismuskunde der Universität Wien, 2013. (Publications of the De Nobili Research Library, 37), p. 53-90.

2 Rājatarala
yogīndravṛndaparikalpitacitprasūnaṃ saṃpūjitāṅghrikamalaṃ kamalāyatākṣam ||
śrīyogasūtrakṛtam ādyam anantam īśaṃ śeṣaṃ viśeṣanilayaṃ kalaye hṛdabje ||9||
vedavyāsaṃ hṛdāvāsaṃ vāsudevāṃśasaṃbhavam |
yogabhāṣyakṛtaṃ yogivṛndavandyapadaṃ numaḥ ||10||

R1 = Yogatārāvalīvyākhyā (Rājataralaḥ), ms. B378 (f. 2), Oriental Research Institute, University of Mysore.
R2 = transcript of ms. 72330, Adyar Library and Research Centre, Chennai. See Descriptive Catalogue of Sanskrit Manuscripts, Vol 8, Compiled by Parameswara Aithal, 1972, p. 311.
‘+’ = missing letter.
9a prasūnaṃ ] emend. : prasūna R1, R2. 10c saṃbhavam ] R2 : saṃbava+ R1. 10d vandyapadaṃ ] emend. : vandyaṃ padaṃ R2 : vandyaṃ pa++ R1. 10d numaḥ ] R2 : +++ R1.


The Yamas and Niyamas: Patanjali's View

The Yamas and Niyamas: Medieval and Modern Views

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Visual Evidence for Sun Worship in Mughal Court Painting

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Fig. 1: Folio 36r from the Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ,
(Collected poems of Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad Ḥāfiẓ Shīrāzī).
British Library, Manuscript Or 14139.

Ever since the Sun has cast a shadow on the land that is now India, it seems that people have offered their reverence in worship of its brilliance, sustenance and cyclical presence. Terracotta plates and medallions from the Mauryan dynasty1 (circa 321–185 B.C.) provide the earliest anthropomorphic representations of Sūrya, the Sun god. Sculptural representations appear on a railing of the Bodhgayā Stupa.2 There is abundant inscriptional as well as textual evidence to testify to the prevalence of Sun worship from the Gupta period onward. Several architectural temples in honour of a Sun god still exist, although often in ruins, such as the majestic 13th century Sun Temple of Koṇārka that sits in the jungle on the coastline of Orissa.

During the time of the Mughal court, we find evidence of a reasonably liberal religious policy3 where the 16th-century Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great (1556 - 1605) adopted a sunrise practice of presenting himself at the jharokha-i-darshan,4 an ornate balcony window from which his subjects were able to view him at first light after bathing in the river and performing their own Sun observance practices.

Apart from the representation of the Sun as a deity and object of worship, very little iconographic evidence of the devotees themselves has survived the passing of time. However, one such piece of evidence appears in paintings from the Mughal court. In the decorative marginal borders of an illustrated manuscript of the Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ, ‘The Collected poems of Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad Ḥāfiẓ Shīrāzī',5 two naturalistic images depict Sun worshipers.

According to a note in this manuscript,6 these poems have been scribed by the renowned calligrapher Sulṭān ʻAlī Mashhadī in circa 1470 AD. The whole work was refurbished during the reign of the 4th Mughal Emperor Jahāngīr7 (son of Akbar) and thus provide an accurate date for the outer margins at circa 1605 AD. These illuminated borders (fig. 1) contain elaborate cartouches with precise depictions of flora, fauna, landscapes, Persian musicians, hunters, fakirs, a Nath yogi and even Europeans.

Fig. 2: Detail of a Sun worshiper from folio 36r
of the Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ,
(Collected poems of Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad Ḥāfiẓ Shīrāzī).
British Library, Manuscript Or 14139.

The first of the Sun worship scenes is in a small golden cartouche centred on the right-hand border of folio 36r (fig. 2). It features a male figure standing in a garden with floral and cloud-like decorations around him. He is wearing a simple dhoti and a cloth (aṅgavastra) wrapped over his shoulders. His hands are raised above his head clasping mālā beads and his gaze is upwards towards the Sun, which is shining brightly overhead. The man’s shoulder-length hair is sleekly combed, as if oiled, and although he appears to be a Brahmin, it is somewhat uncertain because his sacred thread (yajnopavita) is not visible and no other sectarian marks are displayed. The prominent feature of mālā beads suggest that he could be performing japa (i.e., mantra recitation) to the Sun, which is a Brahmanical practice described in the Veda. His dhoti is tied in the style that is typical of South India, and this is affirmed by the accompanying aṅgavastram. The remainder of the margin for this folio pictures birds and plants in similarly elaborate gold painted frames.

Fig. 3: Detail of a Sun worshiper from folio 45r
of the Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ,
(Collected poems of Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad Ḥāfiẓ Shīrāzī).
British Library, Manuscript Or 14139.

The second scene of Sun worship is centred on the right-hand border of folio 45r (fig. 3) and is similarly positioned in a golden cartouche. It features a youthful male figure standing with his hands in a gesture of reverence (generally called añjalimudrā) towards the Sun. The scared thread (yajñopavītam) over his bare right shoulder is clearly visible in the fine details of the figure, marking him as a Brahmin. His hair is long and worn in a bun at the crown of the head, and he has bracelets on both wrists as well as beaded necklaces around his neck. His dhoti is worn at full length and gathered at the front. The brass accoutrements, that are typically used for pūjā, sit to his left. A mountainous landscape is detailed faintly in the background. The remainder of the outer margin for this folio contains similarly framed gold-painted cartouches with fine drawings of birds, a rabbit and a deer-like animal.

These two Sun worship scenes are remarkable because not only do they focus on Sun worshippers, rather than the Sun as a deity or image accompanied by consorts and devotees, but they are, as far as I am aware, the earliest naturalistic painted evidence of Sun worshipers themselves.

One other painting of significance can be found in the Gulshan Album8 (circa 1590-95) from the Mughal artist studio of Lahore or Delhi (fig. 4). Attributed to Basawan and dated to a similar period as the outer borders of the Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ, it depicts a woman worshiping the Sun with a child at her feet. Both figures in the painting are rendered with three dimensional perspective forming a realistic outdoor scene. Draped fabric in vibrant blue and red is given weight and movement through the use of shading. The distant landscape is seen through an atmospheric haze. The figures and landscape are an example of the fully developed naturalistic style of the Mughal studio. Based on the woman’s head dress, costume and golden hair, it is likely that this painting is representing an imagined European rather than a Hindu or Brahmin sun worshiper. This painting demonstrates the significant influence European art was having on Mughal artists of the time.9 The representation of mother and child harps to Christian imagery that entered the Mughal artistic milieu during the second half of the 16th century through European prints and illustrated Bibles gifted by Jesuit missionaries and other European travellers to Emperor Akbar’s court.

Fig. 4: Woman Worshiping the Sun:
Page from the Gulshan Album, (Muraqqa-i Gulshan, Tehran).
Attributed to Basawan, circa 1590-95.

India, Mughal court at Lahore or Delhi. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper.
Lent by Museum of Islamic Art, Doha to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


Dasgupta, P. C., Early Terracotta from Chandraketugarh, Lalit Kala No.6. Oct. 1959. p. 46. Vide also Indian Archaeological Review, 1955-56. Pl. LXXII B., also Modern Review, April, 1956. The terracotta image of Sun-god from Chandraketugarh. This terracotta was collected by S. Ghosh, and is now preserved in Asutosh Museum, Calcutta (T. 6838).  Also see Bindheswari P. Singh, Bharatiya Kala Ko Bihar Ki Den, (Hindi) JISOA, Vol. III, No. 2. 1935. P. 82, 125; Photo No. 46.

Pandey, Lalta Prasad, Sun Worship in Ancient India. Shantilal Jain at Shri Jainendra Press, Delhi. First Edition 1971. Plate 5, Figure 1 Bodhagayā sun image.

3 Proceedings – Indian History Congress. Indian History Congress (1998), p. 246.

Eraly, Abraham, The Mughal World: Life in India's Last Golden Age. Penguin Books India (2007), p. 44.

5 Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ (Collected poems of Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad Ḥāfiẓ Shīrāzī). British Library, Manuscript Or 14139. Accessed:

6 The catalogue record at the British Library provides the note by Shah Jahan of 1037/1628 (f.1r) that identifies the calligrapher as Sulṭān ʻAlī Mashhadī and that the manuscript was copied at Herat or Mashhad ca. 1470. It appears that the source of this catalogue record is J. P. Losty, The 'Bute Hafiz' and the Development of Border Decoration in the Manuscript Studio of the Mughals, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 127, No. 993 (Dec., 1985), p. 856. Losty gives a clear account of his study of the marginal notes on the manuscript that have enable him to precisely date the outer borders to 1014/1605. This includes an accidentally studio mark that has remained on the margin as well as a minute inscription on a scroll bearing a date of 1014/1605 in the hands of a Portuguese gentleman painted on f.18r.

7 Fourth Mughal Emperor Jahāngīr was born on 31 August 1559 and died on 28 October 1627. Jahāngīr - Emperor of India, Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Published 1998 and revised 2015. Accessed:

Muraqqa-i Gulshan (Gulshan Album) is dated 1599-1609 and is mostly in the former Gulistan Palace Library, Tehran. The painting of concern for this article: Woman Worshiping the Sun: Page from the Gulshan Album, has been lent by Museum of Islamic Art, Doha to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Losty, J.P., The 'Bute Hafiz' and the Development of Border Decoration in the Manuscript Studio of the Mughals, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 127, No. 993 (Dec., 1985), pp. 855-856+858-871.

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Monday, 5 June 2017

The Unsupported Pose from the 'Splendour of the Mind'

Nirālambanāsana of the Mānasollāsa


An assembly of Hindu gods, ascetics and worshippers.
Deccan, Hyderabad or Bidar. Early 18th century.
Gouache with gold on paper inscribed with the name in modi script 'Kakoji Ram'.
Painting size 41 x 33.6cm.
Sotheby's Catelogue, The Sven Gahlin Collection
, Lot 51.

The Mānasollāsa, which literally means ‘the mind’s splendour’, is a text attributed to Sureśvarācārya, a student of the great advaitavedāntin Ādiśaṅkara, who is generally ascribed to the eighth century CE. This text, otherwise called the Dakṣiṇāmūrtistotrabhāvārthavārttika, has an interesting chapter on yoga (i.e., chapter 9), which utilises the standard system of eight auxiliaries known as aṣṭāṅgayoga, consisting of yama, niyama, āsana, prāṇāyāma, etc.

Some scholars have claimed that the Mānasollāsa was written more recently than the eighth century.1 Our research suggests that chapter nine, at least, was probably written after the twelfth century because the definitions of its auxiliaries contain references to techniques specific to Haṭhayoga, such as the internal locks employed during prāṇāyāma and several complex āsana.

A striking feature of the Mānasollāsa’s aṣṭāṅgayoga is its discussion on āsanas. Unlike yoga texts of the preceding period that provide simple lists of āsanas, such as the  Pātañjalayogaśāstra and the Dharmaputrikā, the Mānasollāsa divides its āsanas into five categories according to the deities Brahmā, Viṣṇu, Rudra, Śakti and Śiva.

As far as we are aware, this categorisation of āsanas is unique to the Mānasollāsa.

Mānasollāsa 9.24cd–25cd
Brahmā’s āsanas are called Svastika, Gomukha, Padma and Haṃsāsana. 
Viṣṇu’s āsanaare Nṛsiṃha, Garuḍa, Kūrma and Nāgāsana. 
Rudras are Vīra, Mayūra, Vajra and Siddhāsana. 
[Yogins] know Śakti’s āsana as Yonyāsana and Śiva’s as Paścimatānāsana. 
svastikaṃ gomukhaṃ padmaṃ haṃsākhyaṃ brāhmam āsanam ||24|| 
nṛsiṃhaṃ garuḍaṃ kūrmaṃ nāgākhyaṃ vaiṣṇavāsanam | 
vīraṃ mayūraṃ vajrākhyaṃ siddhākhyaṃ raudram āsanam ||25|| 
yonyāsanaṃ viduḥ śāktaṃ śaivaṃ paścimatānakam |

The author of the Mānasollāsa does not describe these āsanas nor does he divulge the reasons for this classification. This raises the question of why particular āsanas have been associated with each of these deities. When worshipping, should a devotee adopt an āsana associated with the deity worshipped? Or, in some cases, might the reason be more obvious? For example, Garuḍāsana might be considered a vaiṣṇava posture because of Garuḍa’s role as the vehicle of Viṣṇu in vaiṣṇava mythology. 

In addition to the five categories another āsana, namely, Nirālambanāsana (The Unsupported Posture) is mentioned. It is associated with Sadāśiva, who is a mild form of Śiva worshipped in the Śaivasiddhānta, a normative tradition of Śaivism which still exists in south India. Nirālambanāsana appears to transcend the other āsanas just as Sadāśiva transcends the five other gods.

Mānasollāsa 9.26cd–27ab
For the unsupported yoga (nirālambanayoga), there is the unsupported āsana [called Nirālambanāsana]. Because [this āsana] is not supported, meditation [arises]. Sadāśiva is the unsupported [state of meditation]. 

nirālambanayogasya nirālambanam āsanam ||26|| 
nirālambatayā dhyānaṃ nirālambaḥ sadāśivaḥ |

The ‘unsupported yoga’ (nirālambanayogalikely refers to a meditative state without a point of focus, much like the ‘seedless’ samādhi of Pātañjalayoga. It’s possible that the author of the Mānasollāsa had no particular āsana in mind when referring to a Nirālambanāsana because it remains undefined. In other words, the transcendent Nirālambanāsana is simply that posture which enables the yogin to realise the unsupported state, that is Sadāśiva, in meditation.

However, a posture by the name Nirālambanāsana is described in a seventeenth-century yoga text called the Haṭharatnāvalī.

Haṭharatnāvalī (17th century)
Now, the Unsupported Āsana: 
Having made a lotus with the hands, the wise yogin remains on the elbows while raising up the face. [This is] Nirālambanāsana. Meditation is the state of being unsupported [just as this] āsana is unsupported.

atha nirālambanam 
karābhyāṃ paṅkajaṃ kṛtvā tiṣṭhet kūrparayoḥ sudhīḥ | 
mukham unnamayann uccair nirālambanāsanam ||3.61|| 
nirālambanatā dhyānaṃ nirālambanam āsanam |3.62|| 
emend: kūrparayoḥ : kūrparayā Ed. 2

Śrīnivāsa, the author of the Haṭharatnāvalī, does not suggest that Nirālambanāsana is superior to any other āsana nor does he give it a prominent place in his list of eighty-four āsanas. Nonetheless, this Haṭhayogin, who claimed to be an expert in tantric and vedāntic scriptures among others, appears to have known the yoga of the Mānasollāsa because verse 3.62 of the Haṭharatnāvalī seems to have been borrowed from the Mānasollāsa (9.26cd–26ab).3 In fact, it looks like Śrīnivāsa attempted to rewrite the verse, somewhat  incoherently, to remove the reference to Sadāśiva. 

It is unlikely that Śrīnivāsa’s description of Nirālambanāsana was ever that intended by the author of the Mānasollāsa. Like other Haṭha and Rājayoga texts, the the Haṭharatnāvalī is an act of bricolage. The source of its eighty-four āsanas remains unknown. 

Nirālaṃbanāsana as illustrated in Haṭharatnāvalī (a treatise on Haṭhayoga) of Śrīnivāsayogī.
Lonavla : Lonavla Yoga Institute (India), 2009, pp. 152 - 153.


1 See, for example, Karl H Potter, Encyclopaedia of Indian philosophies. Vol. 3 (Advaita Vedānta up to Śamkara and his pupils). Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1981, pp. 550-51.

2 Śrīnivāsayogī; M L Gharote; Parimal Devnath; Vijay Kant Jha, Haṭharatnāvalī (a treatise on Haṭhayoga) of Śrīnivāsayogī. Lonavla : Lonavla Yoga Institute (India), 2009.

3 Note that Gharote’s critical edition of Haṭharatnāvalī 3.62 has, nirālambanayogī syān nirālambanam āsanam | nirālambanatā dhyānaṃ nirālambanam āsanam. However, 3.62ab is somewhat redundant and does not occur in six of the seven manuscripts used in Gharote's critical edition (2009: 117 n. 2, 4). Therefore, Śrīnivāsa, the author of the Haṭharatnāvalī, may have added only 3.62cd (nirālambanatā dhyānaṃ nirālambanam āsanam = Mānasollāsa 9.27a and 9.26d).