ORIGINS OF YOGA AS THE WARRIOR'S PRACTICE
The Origins of Yoga as a Warrior's Practice
At first reflection, it may seem that the spirit of the yogi and the spirit of the warrior are at odds. Aren't their actions and values inherently in contradiction? In yoga we value ahiṃsā, the principle of non-violence that arose out of the ancient śramaṇa yogi-ascetic traditions. We strive for compassion and wish for the ideal of the end of suffering for all beings (lokāḥ samasthāḥ sukhino bhavantu). This may all be well-and-good, but the modern yoga that many of us know and practice today has its roots in Indian wresting and calisthenic training influenced by British military according to the latest academic research in the field. These physical and mental practices were implemented to strengthen and ready combatants for martial duty. The postural practices we recognize today were not explicitly linked with systems of yoga until around the 18th century.
"Praise be to Śiva who is the self of Yoga, whom the alert, breath-conquered silent yogins, who look on everything indifferently, behold as light!"
- Kūrma Purāṇa 1.10
In Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, yoga scholar Mark Singleton describes the link connecting the identity of the yogi with the ascetic mercenaries of the 17th century. These yogis "engaged in exercise regimes designed to inure their bodies to the harsh physical conditions of the itinerant life and prepare them for combat." These practices and regimes were considered a form of tapas (practices of severe meditation and intense austerities). Ranks of yogis were followers of the Hindu godhead Śiva who is well-known known as the god of destruction but equally known as the archetypal mendicant yogi or Mahāyogi ("Supreme Yogi") and the Yogeśvara ("Lord of Yoga) famed for his unparalleled mastery in practices of self-discipline and for his complete control over his senses. These troops of Shaivite yogis called Nāga Yogis can be identified by their naked appearance, matted hair, ash covered skin and by the tridents they wield in their hands, engaged in the extreme practices they have dedicated their lives to. This aesthetic undeniably resembles Śiva who still serves as the quintessential figure of the fierce ascetic-warrior even into modern day.
As early as the 16th century, militant ascetics trained as mercenaries to provide protection for waring Mughal emperors, Hindu Rajas and eventually, the British owned East India Company as colonial powers began to take over South Asia. Bands of yogi-warriors acted as independent combatants and acted with little loyalty to either side while forces battled for land, resources, and access to trade routes. As Wendy Doniger explains in her book On Hinduism, at this time "to be a yogi often meant to train as a guerilla." Even today, the Indian army has revived the old tradition of the warrior yogi by incorporating yoga as a training technique. Yoga is used to prepare soldiers to endure adversity, face extreme conditions and keep composure during the demanding situations will be sure to encounter on the battlefield.
The Bhagavad Gītā of the Mahābhārata
"there is no power equal to yoga"
Beyond the martial origins of the physical āsana practice we know as yoga, we find some of the first references to the practice of yoga as a higher pursuit of the warrior in the ancient Indian epic the Mahābhārata (3rd c BCE - 3rd c CE). At many instances in this text, yogis are engaged in tapas (arduous practices or austerities) for the purpose of receiving a special superpower, a mighty boon, or a liberating revelation. Other yogis practice tapas to achieve a meditative stilling of the mind. For all paths of yoga, tapas or serious self-discipline was required to receive or achieve the phalam, the goal or the 'fruit' of the practice. In Roots of Yoga, James Mallinson describes how practices of tapas were understood in some of the most early formations of yoga: "In early formulations of yoga, such as those found in the Mahābhārata, yoga, like asceticism (tapas), is seen as a glorious power in itself, through which the yogi becomes mightier than the god and can even burn up the entire universe."
The Mahābhārata is one of the longest epic stories of human history. It is sub-divided into 18 parvans or books and the entire epic is nearly 11 times longer than Homer's Illiad and Odyssey combined. Even if you have never heard of this masterpiece of world literature, if you have been practicing yoga for a while, you will surely come across a reference to one particular section of the epic, an episode that unfolds in its sixth chapter. The sixth parvan of the Mahābhārata is arguably the most significant as it includes the story of the Bhagavad Gītā. Today, the Bhagavad Gītā is treasured as one of the oldest references to teachings of the various paths of yoga as laid out by Krishna (Kṛṣṇa, the supreme universal lord) in his dialogue with a warrior in crisis on the battlefield.
"Know your duty and do it without hesitation"
- Bhagavad Gītā 2.31
One of the most significant contributions of the Bhagavad Gītā is that it popularized yoga; it moved yoga from the esoteric brahmanical and renunciant traditions and into the mainstream. "Yoga" in this text is presented as a more accessible system of practices said to be especially compatible with the needs and desires of the 'householder,' the 'warrior,' and the 'worker.' Yoga in the Gītā is a synthesized, multi-fold path where no expression of yoga is necessarily better than the other: karma yoga (yoga of action), jñāna yoga (yoga of knowledge), bhakti yoga (yoga of devotion), rāja yoga (the royal yoga) may be different paths, but they all represent one yoga. This approach individualizes yoga, allowing a practitioner (sādhaka) to follow the path that most appeals to the heart, mind, and lifestyle of the individual. This yoga is both the method and the goal. By means of the path of yoga, one achieves the state of yoga... the fruit or result of dharmic service described as a liberating state beyond the dualities of pleasure and pain.
By devotion to one's own dharma, a person can attain the highest self... By following one's own soul-purpose, a person never comes to grief.
- Bhagavad Gītā 3.4
The field of Dharma
Even these first explicit references to yoga are framed within the context of battle. The action of the entire story takes place on a battlefield called Kurukṣetra, named after the royal family. This battlefield is also called the dharma-kṣetra, literally meaning the "domain or field of dharma (duty or purpose in life)" and it is within this domain that characters play out their own dharmas as heroic, yogi-warriors: their purpose is to perform their duty as protectors of the people ready to serve selflessly in the battle of righteousness over the forces of darkness, win-or-lose, without attachment to the outcome.
In the Bhagavad Gītā the warrior's dharma (kṣatriya-dharma) is to protect the good and defeat the wicked. But of course, it isn't so easy to distinguish between good and evil on the battlefield, especially for the yogi who believes that all beings are inherently good and have a right to life and liberation, regardless of their sins. This contradiction of values and crisis of identity leads Arjuna, one of the leading warriors, into a deep state of confusion.
As his charioteer Krishna leads him onto the battlefield, he sees all of the brave ranks of men drawn up and eager for battle. He looks to the far side of the field and realizes that he is moments away from waging war on his own family, friends, and teachers. Arjuna had trained his entire life as a warrior, but not just any warrior... he was a yogi-warrior. This caliber of warrior is one of utmost moral character tasked with the dharma or life-purpose of protecting the people of the land from dark forces, danger, and destruction, even if these forces were within his family. All he can foresee is the imminent disaster and death ahead. Recognizing this, Arjuna is beside himself on the brink of losing all sense of composure. He makes the decision to lay down his bow, refusing to fight.
Yoga of Action VS. Renunciation
Despite the evil ways of his family on the opposing side, the great warrior Arjuna sees no good in killing people he so intimately knows, regardless of that fact that they are the aggressors who have insisted waging war. How will he endure the mental agitation this conflict will create in his life? How can he survive his karma (the consequences of action) with the blood of his kinsmen on his hands? Having given up his weapons, he begs Krishna for advice: "I am weighed down by grief. My mind is utterly confused about what I should do, where does my duty lie? Tell me (BG 2.7)." Krishna commands him to take up the warrior code and to not flee the scene. He understands his dilemma but also reminds him that his duty is greater than himself and for that reason, he must not renounce it out of fear of the outcome. He has an obligation to serve and deserting his unit at the time of duty is equally against his kṣatriya-dharma. Krishna offers counsel: "Renunciation and the yoga of action both bring about ultimate bliss but of the two, the yoga of action is superior to the renunciation of action (BG 5.2)."
"Armed with the understanding of yoga, you will shatter your karmic bonds"
- Bhagavad Gītā 2.39
The warrior becomes a spiritual warrior when he is armed with the knowledge of yoga. In the Gītā, Krishna describes yoga as equanimity and skillfulness in both action and separation, in success and in failure. The yogi is a warrior on the battlefield of life, armed with both a sword and a mirror. The karmic bonds that cause suffering are shattered by means of the sword and mirror of yoga. With the sword of yoga, we slay self-doubt, defeat our destructive tendencies, and conquer our fears. And once we achieve that victory over our mental grip, we realize that nothing was ever really in the way... except for ourselves. This is the mirror of yoga which allows us to accept responsibility for our actions and reclaim a sense of self-control through the act of self-reflection. From this state of steadiness, ease of mind and clarity of purpose, our energy and focus can be used for the sake of service... to live out our dharma.
In the Rāmāyaṇa (~2nd cent. CE) we find some of the earliest stories of yogic sages (ṛṣi) undertaking fearsome tapas in order to cultivate yogic powers (siddhis) and gain boons from the gods. These sages were forrest dwellers who renounced the world of possessions to dedicate their lives to the pursuit of yoga. They used visualization, meditation, mantra, and medicinal herbs to harness their yogic powers and achieve mastery of the mind.
In the Rāmāyaṇa, these sages become gurus (spiritual teachers) to a particular warrior-prince named Rāma, imparting on him their yogic knowledge for the cultivation of his own superpowers. The sage Viśvāmitra offers the warrior-prince Rāma protection in the form of his very own mystical weapons infused with the power of their yogic tapas. Through several battles that act as trials of strength, the sages demonstrate that the powers bestowed through tapas were far greater than any physical might alone. Rāma, like Arjuna must lead his life according the kṣatriya-dharma or warrior code. He uses his newly acquired yogic powers and mystical weapons to defeat the demonic forces that have overtaken the land, disturbing the harmony and balance of the world.
YOGA AS A WARRIOR'S PRACTICE IN THE PURāṇAS
In the Purāṇas, we find the story of the birth of the Goddess. In this story, the mighty gods are up against the demons in a battle that lasted a hundred years. The gods, for the first time found that they were no match for the demonic forces and were ultimately defeated. Having conquered the gods, the demons began to overpopulate the earth, filling the world with evil, death and destruction. Feeling utterly desperate, all the gods decided to unite to combine all of their pure energy together. The energy was blazing with power and grew until it became the goddess. The goddess was infused with all of the tapas of the gods. When all the gods realized the power of their collective energy could create the form of a goddess, they rejoiced and gave her all of their weapons. Her power shook all the worlds, signaling the demons into battle to kill the thousand-weaponed goddess. Mounted on her lion with her trident, her sword, her club, disc, bow and spears sent her weapons to rain down onto the earth, piercing the demon troops.
Stories of the goddess as counterparts to the gods feature widely in the mythology. Parvati, the meditating wife of Śiva takes on her form as Durgā the fierce warrior goddess who defeats demons in battle. Further enraged, she takes on the form of the wrathful dark goddess Kālī who wears a necklace of skulls and a skirt of arms of the demonic forces that she has conquered.
On Hinduism - Wendy Doniger
Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice - Mark Singleton
Yoga | The Art of Transformation - Debra Diamond
Roots of Yoga - James Mallinson, Mark Singleton
Bhagavad Gītā of the Mahābhārata