Thursday, 30 November 2017

The Cult of Durgā

Durgā killing the Buffalo Demon.
Dated 9th-10th century. Made of stone (basalt).
© The Trustees of the British Museum
(Museum No.: 1872,0701.79)

The Indian deity Durgā has been adopted by the modern yoga movement as a symbol of feminism and the embodiment of strength and power. Her heroic myth has found resonance with contemporary practitioners, so much so that it is often the inspiration for self-help guidelines and empowerment retreats. The iconic depiction of Durgā as a victorious warrior upon a lion has come to inspire an āsana in which one is meant to mimic the riding of "a lion into the great victory of [one's] life." This same article in Yoga Journal claims that Durgā may be 'invoked' during a vinyasa flow practice so as to summon "her strength" and "[...] to never doubt your own power, to stand firmly in your truth, and to call forth your fearless heart."

Durgā mounted on her lion fighting the demons.
Undated. Drawing - gouache with oxidised silver.
Wellcome Library no. 27688i

How far are these ideas from the conception of the goddess Durgā in classical India? What are the origins of the cultural narrative of this deity? Where and when did the cult of Durgā arise? What are the scriptural sources and the political significances of this deity?

Dr. Bihani Sarkar (British Academy Post-doctoral Fellow, Christ Church, Oxford) has recently published the first expansive, chronological study of the cult of Durgā. The book, Heroic Shāktism: The Cult of Durgā in Ancient Indian Kingship, provides a thorough study of the ideas and rituals of heroism in India between the 3rd and the 12th centuries CE. 
By assessing the available epigraphic, literary and scriptural sources in Sanskrit, and anthropological studies on politics and ritual, Bihani Sarkar demonstrates that the association between Indian kingship and the cult's belief-systems was an ancient one based on efforts to augment worldly power.
  • First published chronological study of the cult of Durgā
  • Up-to-date, uses recent philological research
  • Includes Sanskrit text and translations of influential works such as the Devīpurāṇa and the Durgābhaktitaraṅgiṇī
  • Wide-ranging sources, including epigraphic, literary and scriptural sources in Sanskrit, and anthropological studies
  • Contains individual case studies of important local goddesses identified with Durgā
  • Contains maps of major cult centres and genealogies of kings

Purchase online

About the Author

Bihani Sarkar undertook a D.Phil in Sanskrit at Wolfson College under the supervision of Prof. Alexis Sanderson (All Souls). After her doctorate in 2011 she was awarded a Nachwuchsinitiative Postdoctoral Fellowship by Hamburg University, Germany and then a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Oriental Institute, Oxford University in 2014. She has written on the Navarātra and its history, on dualisms in Durgā's conception in classical kāvya and on the interdependence between conceptions in Indian philosophy and aspects of Durgā's mythological depiction in the classical period. She has also written about classical Sanskrit literature, for example, about the ethics of poetic practice in 13th century Gujarat and the interplay between poetic licence and minding narrative conventions in the classical period. She is currently working on the depiction and history of the tragic in classical Sanskrit literature.


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Monday, 20 November 2017

DHANURĀSANA: Two Versions of Bow Pose

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Fig. 1: Appu Sahib Patumkar performing jogh [āsana]
India (19th century). Painting, gouache on paper.
Image size: 15 x 24 cm

Wellcome Library no. 574888i

This brightly rendered 19th-century Indian painting (fig. 1) is held in the Wellcome Library Collection and is currently on display in the exhibition entitled, Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian medicine. It depicts a man performing a yogic posture (āsana) outdoors on a mat of antelope skin. The catalogue reports the rather cryptic comment, which it calls 'lettering' (possibly on the back of the painting):
Appu [?] Sahib Patumkar [?] performing jogh, awaiting inspiration preparatory to  turning [into a] devotee.
The form of the posture matches the description of an unnamed āsana (no. 51) in the prone (nyubja) section of an 18th-century yoga text called the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati. The description of this āsana is as follows:

Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati 51
hastadvayena pādadvayāgre gṛhītvā ekaikaṃ pādāṅguṣṭhaṃ karṇayoḥ spṛśet || 51 || 
Grasping the toes of the feet with both hands, [the yogin] should touch the big toes, one at a time, on the ears. 
Although the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati doesn't provide a name for this āsana, the artists of the Mysore Palace, who skilfully illustrated the chapter on āsana in the Śrītattvanidhi (19th century), borrowed the description from the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati (fig. 2) and named it the bow pose (dhanurāsana).

Fig. 2: Dhanurāsana in the Śrītattvanidhi
Sjoman 1999: 84, pl. 18
Another example of dhanurāsana from the same period occurs in the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā (18th-century). The posture is described as follows:

Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā 2.18
prasārya pādau bhuvi daṇḍarūpau karau ca pṛṣṭhaṃ dhṛtapādayugmam |
kṛtvā dhanustulyavivartitāṅgaṃ nigadyate vai dhanurāsanaṃ tat || 
Extending the legs on the ground like sticks, as well as the arms, both feet are held from behind and the body is moved like a bow. This is called bow pose.
Seeing that both legs are initially straight on the ground, the above description could be referring to a posture similar in form to the illustration in the Śrītattvanidhi and the Wellcome's painting. A beautifully rendered illustration of dhanurāsana in a manuscript of the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā (fig. 3) published in Fakire und Fakirtum im Alten und Modernen Indian (Schmidt 1908: 34, pl. 12) supports this interpretation.

Fig. 3: Dhanurāsana in the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā
 1908: 34, pl. 12

However, one wonders whether the word pṛṣṭha ('from behind') in the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā’s description is indicating that both feet are held behind the body. If this were the case, one would have to assume that the yogin initially extends both arms and legs while in a prone position, holds the feet from behind (pṛṣṭha) and moves the body like a bow by pulling both feet towards the ears. This interpretation was adopted by Yogi Ghamande in his book entitled Yogasopāna-Pūrvacatuṣka (published 1905). He quotes the verse on dhanurāsana in the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā and gives the following illustration (fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Dhanurāsana in the Yogasopāna-Purvacatuṣka
Ghamande 1905: 64 (
Āsana 34)

This form of dhanurāsana, which is a back-bending shape, is practised by most modern yoga lineages (fig. 5). It was popularised by the widely distributed book Yogāsanas authored by Swāmī Śivānanda, first published in 1934.

Fig. 5: Dhanurāsana in Śivānanda Yoga
Retrieved from the website of International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres.
It is worth noting that the earliest account of dhanurāsana is in the 15th-century Haṭhapradīpikā. 

Haṭhapradīpikā 1.27

pādāṅguṣṭhau tu pāṇibhyāṃ gṛhītvā śravaṇāvadhi |
dhanurākarṣaṇaṃ kuryād dhanurāsanam ucyate || 
Having held the big toes of both feet with both hands, one should pull [them] like a bow as far as the ears. This is called bow pose.

The Sanskrit is ambiguous enough to be understood as either of the above versions of this posture. In his commentary on the Haṭhapradīpikā called the Jyotsnā, Brahmānanda (circa mid-nineteenth century) interpreted it as follows:
gṛhītāṅguṣṭham ekaṃ pāṇiṃ prasāritaṃ kṛtvā gṛhītāṅguṣṭham itaraṃ pāṇiṃ karṇaparyantam ākuñcitaṃ kuryād ity arthaḥ ||
The meaning [of dhanurāsana is as follows:] Having extended one hand by which the big toe is held, one should draw, as far as the ear, the other hand by which the [other] big toe is held.
Brahmānanda's interpretation supports the version which is described in the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati and illustrated in both the Śrītattvanidhi and the Wellcome's painting. Yogi Ghamande (1905: 30) includes this as another version of dhanurāsana and quotes the above verse from the Haṭhapradīpikā (fig. 6). The illustration depicts a slight variation in which the big toe touches the opposite ear.

Both the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā and the Haṭhapradīpikā were important sources in the revival of postural yoga in twentieth-century India. Therefore, it is possible that the ambiguities in their Sanskrit descriptions of dhanurāsana are responsible for the popular (mis)interpretation of this āsana as a back-bending shape in modern yoga.

Fig. 6: Another version of Dhanurāsana in the Yogasopāna-Purvacatuṣka
Ghamande 1905: 30 (Āsana 8)

Thank you to Mark Singleton for providing the images from the Yogasopāna-Pūrvacatuṣka.


Ghamande, Yogi. 1905. Yogasopāna-Pūrvacatuṣka. Bombay: Janardan Mahadev Gurjar, Niranayasagar Press.

Śivānanda, Swāmī. 1993. Yoga Asanas. Sivanandanagar, India: Devine Life Society.

Schmidt, Richard. 1908. Fakire und Fakirtum im alten und modernen Indian: Yoga-Lehre und Yoga-Praxis nach den indischen Originalquellen dargestellt. Berlin: Hermann Barsdorf.

Sjoman, Norman E. and Kṛṣṇarāja Vaḍeyara. 1999. The Yoga tradition of the Mysore Palace. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

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