“Journeys on the Silk Road” by Joyce Morgan and Conrad Walters

journeys-on-the-silk-roadMarc Aurel Stein was a superstar of his time. When he returned from the Taklamakan and Gobi desert in central Asia after a successful expedition that lasted from 1906 to 1908, weighed down with treasure in the form of ancient documents, the newspapers in London were full of his exploits. Today, almost nobody has heard of him. I certainly hadn’t until I read Journeys on the Silk Road by Joyce Morgan and Conrad Walters. Morgan and Walters have travelled from their native Australia to England, Wales, India and China in order to retell Stein’s story and that of the document most associated with his explorations: the Diamond Sutra from the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas — the oldest printed and dated document in the world.

The book can be read from a number of different points of view. One such perspective is the insight into the last hurrah of colonial exploration, which Morgan and Walters call The Great Race. The first third of the book introduces us to a Stein who is always looking over his shoulder looking for signs of his French, German and Russian rivals, as he struggles first with bureaucracy and then with the desert to reach his goal before they do. He has heard rumours of a store of ancient texts in a long-forgotten waypoint on the Silk Road, and wants to claim them for his adopted England (Stein is Hungarian-born but became a citizen of the United Kingdom). Stein’s ambition and single-mindedness typify the attitude of the Western powers of that time towards the cultural heritage of the rest of the world.

Title: Journeys on the Silk Road
Author: Joyce Morgan and Conrad Walters
Publisher: Lyons Press
ISBN: 978-0762782970
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Another way to read the book is as a story of Stein, the man. But we are only offered glimpses of him. He is somebody who lived for the adventure of travel, competition and discovery. He was meticulous in his preparations, dapper in his appearance, frugal in his lifestyle, but prone to taking unnecessary risks with his own life and the lives of those in his pay. He wrote an enormous number of letters and multi-volume books recounting his expeditions, but he seems to have hidden himself behind an official language of reserve and distance. For example, on the return leg of the Diamond Sutra expedition, he lost a number of toes due to frostbite (the result of an unplanned detour up a snowy peak). His letters from his sick-bed were written with a stiff upper lip that would have impressed any natural-born Englishman, but there are indications from other sources of a deep and lasting suffering on Stein’s part. Another example of his tendency to whitewash is the fact that he never wrote of his fourth and failed expedition to the Chinese desert. In many ways it would have been more interesting for its depiction of the changing times and the end of the Great Race, but for Stein it was something to be hidden from view. Stein was a lifelong bachelor, and although he struck up some important friendships with men he worked with, there is no insight into whether those relationships were built on anything other than a shared interest in adventure.

One issue occurs to the reader before the authors eventually explicitly deal with it — the ethical considerations of what Stein and others like him were doing. In today’s China, he is remembered as a ignoble thief who bribed and cajoled the monk in charge of the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas until he got the documents he wanted. Note that Stein understood very little about the contents of what he discovered and it was ironically his French rival who was engaged to analyze the texts once they were back in London, that first appreciated the significance of the Diamond Sutra. But it could also be said that even if this was a typical cultural smash-and-grab of its time, the alternatives might have been worse. Once word of the find reached Beijing, those documents that remained behind were ordered to be sent to the capital. But they were inexpertly packed for their journey and fell foul of the dampness of the climate outside their desert cave home, as well as falling into the wrong hands as they made their long trip. If Stein was a thief, perhaps he was the right thief at the right time.

What we can say about him with some amount of confidence is that he was a fascinating if not always very likeable person who seems to have been driven by a thirst for adventure and a desire for recognition.

A third key to this book is the Diamond Sutra itself. Each chapter in the book begins with a quote from this Buddhist text — a nice idea, but in the end it felt a bit contrived as I didn’t see how the quotes had an immediate relevance to the contents of the chapters. However, the history and significance of the Diamond Sutra are dealt with well, and would certainly provided a good overview to a reader (like me) who has very little knowledge of Buddhist scripture. The authors look into the distant past with a discussion of how the script might have come to be in the caves and the historic figures associated with it. And they zoom forward to the present day, describing how the Sutra is being preserved and digitized, and even going so far as to interview the 14th Dalai Lama on the contents and importance of the Diamond Sutra.

The Diamond Sutra famously ends with a verse about impermanence:

All conditioned dharmas
Are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, or shadows;
Like drops of dew, or flashes of lightning;
Thusly should they be contemplated.

Morgan and Walters point out the positive irony in the fact that a document that teaches impermanence has survived so long, against so many odds, and is now safer than ever and available to the world through the internet.

In summary, the book was not what I was expecting. I had ideas of fast-paced adventure and breathless story-telling. But Stein was no Indiana Jones, and the book itself is not written in a style that sweeps the reader along. The subject, however is undeniably fascinating and the book is well researched. The authors don’t intrude with their judgements on Stein and his times, but instead outline the facts, present the various arguments, and allow the reader to draw their own conclusions. I recommend it to readers interested in the historic context and also to those intrigued by the Diamond Sutra itself.

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Zen Buddhism, art subject of University of Tennessee exhibit

An exhibit opening Sept. 15 at the University of Tennessee’s Frank H. McClung Museum explores both the simple yet elegant beauty and the deeper meanings of art developed around Zen Buddhism.

“Zen Buddhism and the Arts of Japan” is at the museum, located at 1327 Circle Park Drive on the UT campus, through Dec. 31.

The display includes such objects as tea bowls, robes, bronze memorial plaques and a wooden sculpture of the guardian figure called Fudo Myoo. “Zen Buddhism” also shows more than 40 hanging scrolls whose paintings and calligraphy were created by Zen Buddhist monks from 1600 to 1868.

The beliefs and practices of Zen Buddhists were …

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The first western portrayal of the Buddha?

Twitter still has its uses. While keeping an eye out for new Fake Buddha Quotes to document, I came across a link to a post at a rather eclectic blog called Obsidian Wings. The post was written by someone who calls himself Doctor Science, who I know little about Doctor Science except that he’s from New Jersey and has an MA in theoretical population genetics.

He’s not an art historian or religious scholar, but he’s spotted something interesting in Pieter Aertsen’s Adoration of the Magi. Pieter Aertsen, in case (like me) you haven’t heard of him, lived from 1508 to 1575, and was a Dutch historical painter. According to Wikipedia, “He was born and died in Amsterdam, and painted there and in Antwerp, though his genre scenes were influential in Italy.”

One of Doctor Science’s “sprogs” (children to non-Brits) commented that the young man in the center looked like the Buddha. And the sprog seems to be right.

Could this be an image of the Buddha, given the time? It’s worth bearing in mind that in 1954, archaeologists excavating a Viking ruin in Helgö in Ekerö Island in Lake Mälaren in Sweden found a 10 cm (4″) Buddha statue that scholars have pinned to the Swat valley in North-western India. That wasn’t the only exotic artifact found at that site. Items from Byzantium and Egypt were also excavated. Although at the time Aertsen was active, Dutch trading with Asia had not yet begun — the first Dutch expedition round the Cape to the far east took place in 1595, it’s not inconceivable that artifacts could have made their way, through other means (which I’ll discuss shortly) to Europe.

Doctor Science hypothesizes that Aertsen may have seen a Buddha statue, and made a quick sketch, not quite understanding what he was seeing with respect to the Buddha’s hair-style, which is portrayed in the painting by a kind of “helmet” made of straps, along with some kind of top-knot.. To shaw what he might have been trying to represent, here’s a 15th century Buddha head from Thailand, with the Buddha’s hair shown in tight curls, along with a top-knot. The resemblance is striking, and it’s easy to see how Aertsen might have thought this was a helmet.

The figure Aertsen paints is very androgynous, which is not uncommon in Buddha statues, especially from Thailand. Aertsen says that this figure is “an attendant to the old King who’s greeting Jesus.” Interestingly, he’s the only person in the room who’s being looked at, besides the infant Jesus; the younger attendant to the old King is gazing at him. Doctor Science says that the three Magi can to be seem as representing Europe, Africa, and Asia, with the oldest of the three being Asia. This connects the “Buddha” as an Asian figure.

The “Buddha” is in vaguely military garb, with a breastplate and kilt, which is obviously very different from how a Buddha statue would portray the Buddha’s dress. This makes me wonder if Aertsen saw not a full-body statue, but merely a head, like the one shown above. Perhaps, thinking that the Buddha’s “do” was a helmet, he decided to portray the rest of the body in this “military-lite” fashion. The scanty armor of the “Buddha” would fit with him being more of a prince than a mere attendant, which is perhaps why he’s being looked at by the boy servant holding “Asia’s” robe.

As Doctor Science points out, Aertsen worked in Antwerp from about 1535 until 1556 or so, and from 1508 Antwerp was the site of a Portuguese “factory” which served as a northern European distribution center for Portuguese spices from Asia. It’s certainly conceivable that Portuguese traders brought a Buddha statue back to Europe while returning from one of their spice runs.

Doctor Science asks, “There’s a great project here for someone who can find and read the primary sources: is there any direct evidence that images of the Buddha arrived in Europe before 1600, or even 1700?”

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Ancient Buddha attacked by Taliban in Pakistan gets facelift thanks to Italian archaeologist

When the Taliban blew the face off a towering, 1,500-year-old rock carving of Buddha in northwest Pakistan almost five years ago, it fell to an intrepid Italian archaeologist to come to the rescue.

Thanks to the efforts of Luca Olivieri and his partners, the 6-meter (nearly 20-foot)-tall image near the town of Jahanabad is getting a facelift, and many other archaeological treasures in the scenic Swat Valley are being excavated and preserved.

Hard-line Muslims have a history of targeting Buddhist, Hindu and other religious sites they consider heretical to Islam. Six months before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the Taliban shocked the world by …

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Ancient Buddhist temple found in China’s Taklimakan desert

Xinhua: The ruins of a Buddhist temple dating back 1,500 years ago have been discovered in China’s largest desert, offering valuable research material for historians studying Buddhism’s spread from India to China.

The temple’s main hall, with a rare structure based around three square-shaped corridors and a huge Buddha statue, has been uncovered after two months of hard work in Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, Dr. Wu Xinhua, the leading archaeologist of the excavation project, said Monday.

“The hall is the largest of its kind found in the Taklimakan Desert since the first archaeologist came to work in the area in the 20th century,” said Wu, also head of the Xinjiang archeological team of the Chinese Academy of Social Science.

The ruins are located in the south of the Taklimakan Desert, in the Tarim Basin, known as the Damago Oasis in the ancient kingdom of Khotan, a Buddhist civilization believed to date back to the 3rd century BC.

Temple halls with square-shaped corridors stemmed from early Buddhist architecture in India, and gradually disappeared after the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420AD-589AD), when Buddhist architecture in China began to pick up its own characteristics, according to Xiao Huaiyan, a member of the excavation team and a former researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Judging from the layout of the ruins, and the artifacts uncovered at the site, Wu and his colleagues believe the temple dates back to the Southern and Northern Dynasties.

It is so far the best Buddhist site for scholars to study how the religion arrived in China from India, and its early development in the country, said Wu.

Judging from the size of the pedestal on which it would have rested, the missing Buddha statue should be at least three meters tall, reaching the size limits of the hall when its roof was intact, he estimates.

The innermost corridor extends six meters from both south to north and from east to west, the second corridor is 10 meters long and 10 meters wide, while the hall’s wall surrounds an area of 256 square meters.

Still visible on corridor walls are mural paintings of items including the Buddha’s feet, Buddhists and auspicious animals. They are painted in a Greco-Buddhist artistic style, which was seldom seen after the 6th century.

Ruins of several residential structures were found to the southwest of the main hall, along with some pottery kilns and ancient coins.

There is still a scripture hall, a stupa and residential houses for Buddhists to be uncovered, Wu added.

The southern end of the ancient Silk Road, a major historical trade route, went across the 337,000-square-km Taklimakan Desert, and a wide variety of cultural heritage items have been buried in what is now known as the “sea of death.”

In 1901, British explorer Marc Aurel Stein trekked far out in the desert and into the ruins of Niya, an ancient Pompeii-like city with homes, Buddhist stupas, temples, pottery kilns, orchards, tombs, waterways and dams.

Since then, more than 10 Buddhist sites have been discovered by archaeologists from China and abroad in the Damago Oasis.

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11.11.11: Wildmind’s 11th birthday

On November 11, 2000, Wildmind’s website went live for the first time. We didn’t realize it at the time, but that meant that Wildmind’s 11th birthday would fall on 11.11.11!

Wildmind was started by Bodhipaksa while he was a grad student at the University of Montana. He’d recognized that at that time there was very little reliable information on meditation on the web. It had occurred to him that since people often learned meditation from books and cassette tapes (remember them?), the internet was the perfect place to bring together text and audio, providing structured, self-paced guides to Buddhist meditation practices.

Thanks to a generous grant from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, Bodhipaksa was able to spend a summer putting together the materials for the website. A number of friends pitched in to help. A local Buddhist businessman called Pat Lawler put up the funds to get the site established. Pat also suggested the idea of running online courses, which first started in the Spring of 2001.

Two friends, Beth Chevalier and Roger Hyam, helped with web design and coding. Later a professional designer, Heidi Harting-Rex, redesigned the site from the ground up. Here’s her original design:

As you can tell, the site’s been through a few redesigns since then.

Also since that time, Wildmind has gone on to publish a number of guided meditation CDs, continues to run online meditation courses, and runs workshops using videoconferencing.

The original website has continued to expand, with more self-paced introductory material on meditation than ever before. Our website now attracts over a million visitors a year!

We of course now have a blog, through which we publish book reviews, articles on practice, and every significant news story on meditation that we can track down.

It’s been a great 11 years, and we’d like to thank each and every one of our visitors!

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Yoga: it’s not as old (or as Hindu) as you think

yogaNo one denies that Hinduism’s most sacred and ancient texts, including the Bhagvad Gita, describe different kinds of yogic practices. But what does this ancient and sacred tradition of yoga have to do with what people all around the world do in yoga classes in gyms and fitness centres today?

To most Indians, such questions are nothing less than sacrilegious. Yoga is for them what apple pie and motherhood are for Americans: a living symbol of their way of life.

Indians tend to affirm their claims on yoga by trotting out the familiar icons of the ‘5,000-year-old Vedic tradition,’ which supposedly stretches from the Pashupati seal of the (actually very unVedic) Indus Valley civilisation to the Bhagvad Gita and the venerable Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Yoga, Indians like to solemnly declare, is ‘eternal’ and ‘timeless’ and all the great yoga masters, from Swami Vivekananda to BKS Iyengar to Baba Ramdev of our own time, have only restored or reinstituted an ancient practice. It is also commonplace to hear Indians—even those who are not particularly spiritual themselves—blame

Americans and other ‘decadent’ Westerners for reducing their spiritually rich tradition to mere calisthenics.

Lately, Hindus in America have started flying the saffron flag over American-style yoga, which consists largely of yogic asanas and stretches. The leading Indo-American lobby, Hindu American Foundation (HAF), has recently started a vocal campaign to remind Americans that yoga was made in India by Hindus. Not just any ordinary Hindus, but Sanskrit-speaking, forest-dwelling Brahmin sages who learned to discipline their bodies in order to purify their atman. The purist Hindu position, articulated by the HAF, is that all yoga, including its physical or hatha yoga component, is rooted in the Hindu religion/way of life that goes all the way back to the Vedic sages and yogis.

There is only one problem with this purist history of yoga: it is false. Yogic asanas were never ‘Vedic’ to begin with. Far from being considered the crown jewel of Hinduism, yogic asanas were in fact looked down upon…

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by Hindu intellectuals and reformers—including the great Swami Vivekananda—as fit only for sorcerers, fakirs and jogis. Moreover, what HAF calls the “rape of yoga”, referring to the separation of asanas from their spiritual underpinning, did not start in the supposedly decadent West; it began, in fact, in the akharas and gymnasiums of 19th and 20th century India run by Indian nationalists seeking to counter Western images of effete Indians. It is in this nationalistic phase that hatha yoga took on many elements of Western gymnastics and body-building, which show up in the world-renowned Iyengar and Ashtanga Vinyasa schools of yoga. Far from honestly acknowledging the Western contributions to modern yoga, we Indians simply brand all yoga as ‘Vedic,’ a smug claim that has no intellectual integrity.

It is the hidden history of modern postural yoga that is the main theme of this essay. But first, some background on the great ‘take back yoga’ movement.

Yoga is to North America what McDonald’s is to India: both are foreign implants gone native. Not unlike the golden arches that are mushrooming in Indian cities, the urban and suburban landscape of the United States is dotted with neighbourhood health clubs, spas and even churches and synagogues offering yoga classes.

Some 16 million Americans do some form of yoga, primarily as a part of their exercise and fitness routine. When everyday Americans talk about yoga, they mostly mean hatha yoga, involving stretches, breathing and bodily postures.

Many styles of postural yoga, pioneered by India-origin teachers—the Iyengar and Sivananda schools, the Ashtanga Vinyasa or ‘power yoga’ of Pattabhi Jois, and ‘hot yoga,’ recently copyrighted by Bikram Chaudhary—thrive in the United States. The more meditational forms of yoga, popularised by the disciples of Vivekananda, Sivananda and other swamis, are less popular. Americans’ preference for postural yoga over meditational yoga is not all that unique: in India, too, hundreds of millions follow Baba Ramdev, India’s most popular tele-yogi, who teaches a medicalised, asana-oriented yoga with little spiritual or meditational content.

By and large, the US yoga industry does not hide the origins of what it teaches. On the contrary, in a country that is so young and so constantly in flux, yoga’s presumed antiquity (‘the 5,000-year-old exercise system’, etcetera.) and its connections with Eastern spirituality have become part of the sales pitch. Thus, doing namastes, intoning ‘om’ and chanting Sanskrit mantras have become a part of the experience of doing yoga in America. Many yoga studios use Indian classical or kirtan music, incense, signs of ‘om’ and other paraphernalia of the Subcontinent to create a suitably spiritual ambience. Iyengar yoga schools begin their sessions with a hymn to Patanjali, the second-century composer of the Yoga Sutras, and some have even installed his icon. This Hinduisation is not entirely decorative either, as yoga instructors are required to study Hindu philosophy and scriptures to get a licence to teach yoga.

One would think that yoga’s popularity and Hinduisation would gladden the hearts of Hindu immigrants.


The leading Hindu advocacy organisation in the United States, the aforementioned Hindu American Foundation or HAF, is hardly beaming with pride. On the contrary, it has recently accused the American yoga industry of ‘stealing’—even ‘raping’—yoga by stripping it of its spiritual heritage and not acknowledging its Hindu roots. Millions of Americans will be shocked to learn that they are committing ‘intellectual property theft’ every single time they strike a yogic pose because they fail to acknowledge yoga’s ‘mother tradition,’ namely Hinduism. HAF’s co-founder and chief spokesperson, Aseem Shukla, exhorts his fellow Hindus to ‘take back yoga and reclaim the intellectual property of their spiritual heritage.’

The take-back-yoga campaigners are not impressed with the growing visibility of Hindu symbols and rituals in yoga and other cultural institutions in the US. They still find Hindu-phobia lurking everywhere they look. They want Americans to think of yoga, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the great Vedas when they think of Hinduism, instead of the old stereotypes of caste, cows and curry. They would rather, to paraphrase Shukla, that Hinduism is linked less with holy cows than Gomukhasana (a particularly arduous asana); less with colourful wandering sadhus and more with the spiritual inspiration of Patanjali. It seems this yoga-reclamation campaign is less about yoga, and more about the Indian diaspora’s strange mix of defensiveness and an exaggerated sense of the excellence of the elite, Sanskritic aspects of Hindu religion and culture.

The ‘who owns yoga’ debate gained worldwide attention last November, when The New York Times carried a front-page feature on the issue. But the dispute started earlier, with a battle of blogs, hosted online by The Washington Post, between HAF’s Shukla and New Age guru Deepak Chopra. Shukla complained of the yoga establishment shunning the ‘H-word’ while making its fortunes off Hindu ideas and practices. He accused the yoga and New Age industry, including Indian gurus like Deepak Chopra, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and others, of using euphemisms like ‘Eastern wisdom’ and ‘ancient Indian’ to repackage Hindu ideas without calling them by their proper name. Chopra, who does indeed shun the Hindu label and calls himself an ‘Advaita Vedantist’ instead, declared that Hinduism had no patent on yoga. He argued that yoga existed in ‘consciousness and consciousness alone’ much before Hinduism, just like wine and bread existed before Jesus’ Last Supper, implying that Hindus had as much claim over yoga as Christians had over bread and wine. Shukla called Chopra a “philosophical profiteer” who does not honour his Hindu heritage, while Chopra accused Shukla and HAF of a Hindu-fundamentalist bias.

This debate is really about two equally fundamentalist views of Hindu history. The underlying objective is to draw an unbroken line connecting 21st century yogic postures with the nearly 2,000-year-old Yoga Sutras, and tie both to the supposedly 5,000-year-old Vedas. The only difference is that, for Chopra, yoga existed before Hinduism, while Shukla and HAF want to claim the entire five millennia for the glory of Hinduism. For Chopra, yoga is a part of ‘timeless Eastern wisdom’. For the HAF, ‘Yoga and the Vedas are synonymous, and are as eternal as they are contemporaneous.’

The reality is that postural yoga, as we know it in the 21st century, is neither eternal nor synonymous with the Vedas or Yoga Sutras. On the contrary, modern yoga was born in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. It is a child of the Hindu Renaissance and Indian nationalism, in which Western ideas about science, evolution, eugenics, health and physical fitness played as crucial a role as the ‘mother tradition’. In the massive, multi-level hybridisation that took place during this period, the spiritual aspects of yoga and tantra were rationalised, largely along the theosophical ideas of ‘spiritual science,’ introduced to
India by the US-origin, India-based Theosophical Society, and internalised by Swami Vivekananda, who led the yoga renaissance.

In turn, the physical aspects of yoga were hybridised with drills, gymnastics and body-building techniques borrowed from Sweden, Denmark, England, the United States and other Western countries. These innovations were creatively grafted on the Yoga Sutras—which has been correctly described by Agehananda Bharati, the Austria-born Hindu monk-mystic, as ‘the yoga canon for people who have accepted Brahmin theology’—to create an impression of 5,000 years worth of continuity where none really exists. The HAF’s current insistence is thus part of a false advertising campaign about yoga’s ancient Brahminical lineage.

Contrary to the widespread impression, the vast majority of asanas taught by modern yoga gurus are not described anywhere in ancient sacred Hindu texts. Anyone who goes looking for references to popular yoga techniques like pranayam, neti, kapalbhati or suryanamaskar in classical Vedic literature will be sorely disappointed.

The four Vedas have no mention of yoga. The Upanishads and The Bhagvad Gita do, but primarily as a spiritual technique to purify the atman. The Bible of yoga, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, devotes barely three short sutras (out of 195) to physical postures, and that too only to suggest comfortable ways of sitting still for prolonged meditation. Asanas were only the means to the real goal—to still the mind to achieve the state of pure consciousness—in Patanjali’s yoga.

There are, of course, asana-centred hatha yoga texts in the Indic tradition. But they definitely do not date back 5,000 years: none of them makes an appearance till the 10th to 12th centuries. Hatha yoga was a creation of the kanphata (split-eared) Nath Siddha, who were no Sanskrit-speaking sages meditating in the Himalayas. They were (and still are) precisely those matted-hair, ash-smeared sadhus that the HAF wants to banish from the Western imagination. Indeed, if any Hindu tradition can at all claim a patent on postural yoga, it is these caste-defying, ganja-smoking, sexually permissive, Shiva- and Shakti-worshipping sorcerers, alchemists and tantriks, who were cowherds, potters and suchlike. They undertook great physical austerities not because they sought to achieve pure consciousness, unencumbered by the body and other gross matter, but because they wanted magical powers (siddhis) to become immortal and to control the rest of the natural world.

Far from being purely Vedic, hatha yoga was born a hybrid. As Amartya Sen reminded us in his recent address to the Indian Science Congress, universities like Nalanda were a melting pot where Buddhist Tantra made contact with Taoism from China. By the time Buddhism reached China through Nalanda and other centres of cultural exchange along the Silk Route in the north and the sea route in the south, Taoists were already experimenting with qigong, which involved controlled breathing and channelling of ‘vital energy’. Taoist practices bear an uncanny similarity with the yogic pranayam, leading scholars to believe that the two systems have borrowed from each other: Indians learning exercise-oriented breathing from Taoists, and Taoists in China learning breathing-oriented meditation from their Indian neighbours.

But this Taoist-Buddhist-Shaivite synthesis was only the beginning. As we see below, hatha yoga was to absorb many more influences in the modern era, this time from the West.

The problem for historians of modern yoga is that even these medieval hatha yoga texts describe only a small fraction of modern yogic postures taught today. BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga alone teaches 200 asanas, while the 14th century Hatha Yoga Pradipika lists only 15 asanas, as do the 17th century Gheranda Samhita and Shiva Samhita.

Given that there is so little ancient tradition upon which to stand, unverifiable claims of ancient-but-now-lost texts have been promoted. The Ashtanga Vinyasa system of Pattabhi Jois, for example, is allegedly based on a palm-leaf manuscript called the Yoga Kurunta that Jois’s teacher, renowned yoga master T Krishnamacharya (1888–1989), unearthed in a Calcutta library. But this manuscript has reportedly been eaten by ants, and not a single copy of it can be found today. Another ‘ancient’ text, the Yoga Rahasya, which no one has been able to trace, was supposedly dictated to Krishnamacharya in a trance by the ghost of an ancestor who had been dead nearly a millennium. Such are the flimsy—or rather fictional—grounds on which rest Hinduism’s claimed intellectual property rights to yoga.

This sorry attempt to create an ancient lineage for modern yoga is reminiscent of the case of Vedic mathematics. In that case, Swami Shri Bharati Krishna Tirtha, the Shankaracharya of Puri, insisted that 16 sutras in his 1965 book, titled Vedic Mathematics, are to be found in the appendix of Atharva Veda. When no one could find the said sutras, the Swami declared they appear only in his own appendix to the the Atharva Veda and not any other! This ‘logic’ has not prevented Vedic maths from emerging as a growth industry, attracting private spending by well-heeled Indians seeking to boost brainpower and public spending by state governments that have introduced it in school curriculums.

New research has brought to light historical documents and oral histories that raise serious doubts about the ‘ancient’ lineage of Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga Vinyasa and Iyengar yoga. Both Jois (1915–2009) and Iyengar (born 1918) learnt yoga from T Krishnamacharya from 1933 till the late 1940s, when he directed a yoga school in one wing of the Jaganmohan Palace of the Maharaja of Mysore, Krishnaraja Wodiyar IV (1884–1940).

The Maharaja, who ruled the state and the city of Mysore from 1902 till his death, was well known as a great promoter of Indian culture and religion. But he was also a great cultural innovator, who welcomed positive innovations from the West, incorporating them into his social programmes. Promoting
physical education was one of his passions, and under his reign, Mysore became the hub of a physical culture revival in the country. He had hired Krishnamacharya primarily to teach yoga to the young princes of the royal family, but he also funded the travels all over India of Krishnamacharya and his protégés to give yoga demonstrations, thereby encouraging an enormous popular revival of yoga.

Indeed, Mysore’s royal family had a long-standing interest in hatha yoga: Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar III (1799–1868), Wodeyar IV’s ancestor, is credited with composing an exquisitely illustrated manual, titled Sritattvanidhi, which was first discovered by Norman Sjoman, a Swedish yoga student, in the mid-1980s in the library of the Mysore Palace. What is remarkable about this book is its innovative combination of hatha yoga asanas with rope exercises used by Indian wrestlers and the danda push-ups developed at the vyayamasalas, the indigenous Indian gymnasiums.

Both Sjoman and Mark Singleton, a US-based scholar who has interviewed many of those associated with the Mysore Palace during its heyday in the 1930s, believe that the seeds of modern yoga lie in the innovative style of Sritattvanidhi. Krishnamacharya, who was familiar with this text and cited it in his own books, carried on the innovation by adding a variety of Western gymnastics and drills to the routines he learnt from Sritattvanidhi, which had already cross-bred hatha yoga with traditional Indian wrestling and acrobatic routines.

In addition, it is well established that Krishnamacharya had full access to a Western-style gymnastics hall in the Mysore Palace, with all the usual wall ropes and other props that he began to include in his yoga routines.

Sjoman has excerpted the gymnastics manual that was available to Krishnamacharya. He claims that many of the gymnastic techniques from that manual—for example, the cross-legged jumpback and walking the hands down a wall into a back arch—found their way into Krishnamacharya’s teachings, which he passed on to Iyengar and Jois. In addition, in the early years of the 20th century, an apparatus-free Swedish drill and gymnastic routine, developed by a Dane by the name of Niels Bukh (1880–1950), was introduced to India by the British and popularised by the YMCA. Singleton argues that “at least 28 of the exercises in the first edition of Bukh’s manual are strikingly similar (often identical) to yoga postures occurring in Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga sequence or in Iyengar’s Light on Yoga.” The link again is Krishnamacharya, who Singleton calls a “major player in the modern merging of gymnastic-style asana practice and the Patanjali tradition.”

The HAF’s shrill claims about Westerners stealing yoga completely gloss over the tremendous amount of cross-breeding and hybridisation that has given birth to yoga as we know it. Indeed, contemporary yoga is a unique example of a truly global innovation, in which Eastern and Western practices merged to produce something that is valued and cherished around the world.

Hinduism, whether ancient, medieval or modern, has no special claims on 21st century postural yoga. To assert otherwise is churlish and simply untrue.


Meera Nanda is a visiting professor of history of science at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali

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Not your everyday worship: the legend of the labyrinth

Contrary to popular belief, labyrinths are not used to get one lost and confused – rather, their purpose is to find answers and to meditate on religious issues. Two of the 109’s churches, St. Stephen Presbyterian Church and the University Christian Church, use labyrinths as methods of worship.

That fact is, according to Mark Scott of St. Stephen, the labyrinth is an extremely ancient form of meditation that has roots in paganism and is used as a form of worship in many historically aware churches. The design of labyrinths at St. Stephen and the University Church can both be traced back to the famous Notre Dame Chapel in Chartres, France.

Scott, St, Stephen’s minister of music and organist, is a fierce proponent of labyrinth. He says its ability to help sort out one’s life problems and commune with the God is a type of therapy and worship that would benefit everyone, Christian or not.

“It’s symbolic along the path of life and reminiscent of the times and trials in one’s life. It’s a visual reminder of the non-visual,” Scott said.

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The winding paths of the labyrinth are meant to be walked quadrant by quadrant. Participants meditate on any issues they are experiencing in life and offer these up to God. After walking the main section or quadrants, the meditator or questioner stands or kneels at the center or main floret or rose of the labyrinth and then exits.

“It’s supposed to be a journey,” Scott said. “It makes you slow down and think. You’re supposed to take your time walking. It’s a very esoteric, ecumenical type of thing.”

St. Stephen has two labyrinths — one indoor, one outdoor.

The outdoor labyrinth is in the form of a garden path and is flanked by benches and a vista of downtown Fort Worth. Scott says it was funded by a church member and like the indoor labyrinth, was a gift given in memory of a loved one.

The indoor labyrinth is an 11-circuit Chartres-style labyrinth actually painted on an enormous piece of canvas fabric and is rolled out on various holiday occasions and when led in a labyrinth worship facilitation by church member and trained labyrinth facilitator and clinical psychologist, Carol Stalcup.

Stalcup visited Grace Cathedral in San Francisco to be trained by Lauren Artress, the woman charged with starting the revival of labyrinth worship in the early ‘90s. According to the training Stalcup received, there appear to be three stages during one’s walking of the labyrinth: the releasing of cares and distractions, the receiving of enlightenment or encouragement, and returning to the world in union with God.

Stalcup says facilitators are trained to deal with people’s differing reactions to the labyrinth and also sometimes encourage people to journal about their experiences to better understand them.

“Some people are deeply moved and there are tears, they have a profound experience and come out lighter, happy, and thoughtful. For others, it’s simply another form of prayer and not as dramatic. It’s different for everyone and the labyrinth is not meant for everyone.”

Constantly making turns and twists in connection with the direction of the labyrinth is something that Stalcup says is currently being scientifically tested to determine whether it helps tap into the left and right hemispheres of the brain. She says it could be a scientifically proven neurological calming process.

Stalcup is a believer in what she terms embodied spirituality: that humans can disconnect their bodies from their emotional and spiritual lives. She believes the labyrinth is the perfect conduit for doing so. She calls walking the labyrinth a form of “body prayer” and emphasizes the positive connection between body movement and one’s ability to connect with a deeper part of oneself.

Stalcup said she wishes all could experience the benefits of walking the labyrinth. She says she is such a devoted follower of labyrinth worship because each experience is different and unique, and she loves the diversity.

“I have walked with different communities of friends and with groups of strangers, I have walked solo walks and lingered a long time. I’ve danced the path, sung, prayed, created body prayers, listened to music, smiled, laughed, been surprised by tears, felt deep awe, felt lonely, felt reassured, solved a problem,” Stalcup said.

It is her favorite form of worship because of the various forms of spiritual experiences one can have.

“I have experienced what I believe to be profound spiritual experiences, but am always caught by surprise,” she said. “Somehow, though a walk may not move me to tears or bring me to dance, I always feel as if the time I spent on the labyrinth was a special moment outside of linear time, outside of my usual way of being.”

Stalcup said being a regular walker of the labyrinth has “directly impacted my discernment of God’s presence in my life, in others, in the world. Those discernments stay with me, sustaining, encouraging, nourishing and leading me to more gratitude, wonder and connection with all of creation.”

For those with difficulty walking or without access to a full-size labyrinth, there are finger or stylus labyrinths, which one can follow with a finger or pen-like utensil and employ the same meditation/worship philosophy.

The UCC’s website for its labyrinth ministry describes using the labyrinth as a way “to enhance spiritual growth, experience transformation, enter into an intimate and inspiring relationship with God and one another, and share the path in the spirit of love, reverence and respect for each one’s personal journey.”

UCC’s labyrinth is also a hand-painted, roll-out canvas. They were bought from the same company and are the same traditional Chartres design.

The labyrinth of Chartres is famous for its location, age and size. It was inlaid in the Chartres Cathedral floor in 1205 and contains only one pathway, which is 954 feet in length. The center of the labyrinth purportedly once had a metal plate with figures of Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur, figures from the classical Greek mythology of the labyrinth on Minos.

The Chartres-style labyrinth employed by both churches has a circular pattern with a rose or floret design in the center. According to Stalcup, the rose symbolically can stand for human love, enlightenment, Christ, and God’s love for the world. The rose traditionally has six petals which represent the six days of creation; Stalcup encourages her “walkers” to step into each petal and as they leave the central rose, to imagine themselves returning to the world in union with God.

While many churches utilize the practice of worship with the help of labyrinths, the practice is actually an ancient one the church may have borrowed from pagan or nature-based religions.

“Christians were kind of the late kids to the party,” Scott says with a laugh. “Even down to the holidays, Christmas was made Christmas because of the winter solstice. Easter coincides with the spring equinox.”

Above all, Scott says, he wishes all to know St. Stephen’s outdoor labyrinth is intended for the entire community, religious or not.

“Sure, it’s a labyrinth with a Christian take, but anyone can come use it. With the benches all around, the beautiful garden, the glorious view — we want anyone and everyone to be able to use and enjoy it.”

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Buddha relics unearthed in Jammu-Kashmir

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) recently unearthed a Buddha Stupa in Jammu and Kashmir’s Amvaran village.

It is reported to be the seventh site in the world where relics of the Buddha have been found.

The stupa is said to have been erected by the Kushana Empire in the first century BC.

“This site was established around first century BC in Kushana period, and the relic, tooth relic of Lord Buddha was deposited at the time, which we have found in the reliquary,” said ASI archaeologist A K Khanna.

“The reliquary found in the stupa contain part of a tooth, some ashes, then there are coins, along with 38 foils of gold and there are beads,” he added.

The digging revealed many idols, gemstones, bronze and copper artifacts, and silver and gold foils.

[via OneIndia]
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