History of Yoga – part 2

This article is a continuation of the previous post and covers a few more interesting tidbits from the book “History of Yoga” edited by Satya Prakash Singh.

Symbolism of holy places

In the ancient scriptures of Hinduism as well as other religions, we find great reverence being assigned to holy mountains, lakes and rivers.  While some of these places are indeed permeated by the vibrations generated by sages who practiced austerities over there, most of these places in reality denote regions in the inner planes of consciousness.   This esoteric interpretation is clear in a few places in this book.

Lake Manasarovar is a lake in Tibet which is frequented by Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims.  Swami Brahmananda, Guru of Vijaykrishna Goswami, states that the real Manasarovar is not the place of pilgrimage in Tibet but an inner plane of consciousness which is the abode of many cosmic powers.  The name Manasarovar means “lake of the mind”[1].  Similarly, the Bhavanopanishad tells us that the island of nine jewels (ratnadwipa) is nothing but the body of nine dhatus (elements) – skin, blood, fat, etc.  The resolutions of the mind, sankalpas, are the kalpaka trees on this island and the illumined mind is the kalpaka grove.  The sweet, sour, bitter, pungent, astringent and saltish tastes are the six seasons on this island [2].

Another misinterpretation, covered in a previous post, concerns the holy city of Varanasi.  According to popular imagination, people who die in Varanasi are said to gain freedom from the cycle of rebirth.  The esoteric interpretation, which makes more sense, is that one who has found the “Kashi” within gains liberation. “Kashi” is the historic name for Varanasi.   Kashi in Sanskrit means “light”.

Why did the ancients assign holiness to mountains, lakes and rivers?  A possible answer lies in a suggestion made by mnemonist Joshua Foer.  According to him, they used the “method of loci” to remember their stories because they did not have the kind of powerful recording devices that we have today.  The method of loci relies on the fact that human beings are better at remembering spatial information than lists of numbers and words.  Foer says:

In Australia and the American Southwest, Aborigines and Apache Indians independently invented forms of the loci method. But instead of using buildings, they relied on the local topography to plot their narratives, and sang them across the landscape. Each hillock, boulder, and stream held a part of the story. “Myth and map became coincident,” says John Foley, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Missouri who studies memory and oral traditions. One of the tragic consequences of embedding narrative into the landscape is that when Native Americans had land taken from them by the U.S. government, they lost not only their home but their mythology as well[3].

Methods of initiation (diksha)

The Mother once told  a disciple, Amal Kiran, that she used to do two things for every person who came to see her: she would put the person’s inner being in contact with the outer being; and she would link her own consciousness with the person’s inner being through her emanation thus forming a “golden chain”[4].   The conventional term for such methods of initiating the disciple into Yoga is Diksha, which was discussed in an earlier post.   Every Guru develops some method of initiation based on tradition or Divine guidance.

Chapter 30 relates the initiation and yoga practices followed under Virasaivism(aka Lingayats).  The Virasaivas are followers of Lord Shiva.  They practice Shiv-Yoga which is a combination of Raja Yoga and Dristi Yoga.   There are three ways of initiation in this school of Yoga.  In the first method, the Guru initiates the disciple by placing his or her right palm on the head of the disciple.  In the second method, the Guru whispers a Mantra in the right ear of the devotee.  The last method consists of a sacrament consisting of several rites.  The disciple is given a Istalinga, which is an amulet made of light gray slate stone coated with fine durable thick black paste of cow dung ashes mixed with some suitable oil to withstand wear and tear[5]. This amulet is infused with the consciousness of the Guru and must be worn by the disciple on the body at all times.

Development of occult powers (siddhis)

Sri Aurobindo used to keep a diary (now published as the “Record of Yoga”) in which he recorded the manner in which various siddhis (occult powers) developed in him over a period of 10-12 years.  Reading this diary might leave you puzzled as to why it took so many years for these siddhis to stabilize.   In chapter 33 of the “History of Yoga”, we might have a clue to this puzzle. The Tamil sage Tirumular asserts that the twelve years of continuous practice of the mudras (the yoga postures that he used) is necessary to attain the eight siddhis.  When the yogic attains anima, he becomes lighter than cotton wool.  After attaining anima, it takes five more years to attain laghima (the power to levitate). One more year is needed to attain mahima, the power of becoming vast.  In each successive year after that, he attains prapti, then prakamya, then isatva, then vasitva, and finally what he calls kamavasayitva-siddhi.  Sri Aurobindo’s program of yoga, known as the Sapta Chatusthaya, is different from that of Tirumular but it is possible that there were somewhat similar reasons as to why he needed many years to stabilize his occult powers.

The sage Bogar or Bogarnathar

Chapter 33 also relates the life of another Tamil sage, Bogar, who seems to have had an   inventive streak.   His works contain allusions to the making of a parachute, a steamship, a device for flying in the air, and a moving cart propelled by steam.  Bogar’s poems also contain extensive diagnostic, therapeutic, pharmacological and toxicological information.  He mentions an elixir (muppu) compound of three things which can give a golden hue to the body and make it hard like a rock.  In Chinese alchemical writings as well, there is an account of a recipe containing three elements called “white tiger”, “blue serpent” and “flying pearl”.  The author of this chapter, T.N. Ganapathy, suggests that this as proof of Bogar’s influence on Chinese thought.  On the other hand, Joseph Needham, who authored the multi-volume encyclopedia “Science and Civilisation in China”, suggests that Bogar could have been a Chinese who came to India in the 3rd century A.D. and lived in Chennai [6].  Ganapathy has written a book “Yoga of Siddha Bogarnathar” which might throw more light on this matter.

Why and how does Intuition work?

We gain knowledge of the world around us in three primary ways: direct sight, inference via reasoning and reliance on an authoritative witness.  These were called “pramana” by ancient Hindu philosophers.  The process of Yoga is said to awaken a fourth method which we today call “intuition”.  The Nyaya-Vaishesika school of seers founded by Gotama (no, not the same as the Buddha) laid a framework to define precisely why “intuition” should be regarded as a valid source of knowledge.   Section Ten discusses their views which I briefly summarize here.  There were a number of seers in this school who authored many scriptures containing slightly varying formulations.  I am omitting all those details in this quick summary.

When the mind begins to remain motionless for long periods of time, two states are generated in the human being: sushupti (dreamless sleep) and samadhi.  This is said to awaken “pratibha” in the mind – pratibha is the flash of light which reveals the object.  Pratibha is awakened because of sannikarsa (contact) which occurs between the mind and the other object.  Geniuses have access to “pratibha” naturally by birth.

There are two types of yogins: yunjana and yukta.   The former have not fully attained Self-realization which the latter enjoy.  As a result, the former have occasional flashes of light while the latter constantly bathe in a stream of intuitive knowledge.

Intuition provides knowledge of the following categories of knowledge, transcendental and mundane:

  1. Universals: intuition behind a particular object can provide knowledge of the universal category to which it belongs.  Seeing a motor engine might awaken knowledge of how engines work.
  2. Unseen qualities of an object: seeing a piece of sandalwood awakens perception of its fragrance.
  3. Dharma: Intuition tells you the right action to be undertaken under any situation.
  4. Distance at sight: Intuition extends the perception beyond what is usually regarded as “normal” vision.
  5. Vision of past, present and future: This occurs because intuition awakens knowledge of the Chidakasha.

Intuition does not provide knowledge of Brahman(Cosmic Self) because human beings are intrinsically part of the Brahman.

The Nyaya-Vaishesika school also debates whether omniscience is the result of one or multiple acts of perception.  It cannot be one act because then you wouldn’t be able to grasp opposing qualities at the same time (e.g. “hot” and “cold”).  If it is many, is it due to simultaneous or successive acts?  If the mind is not expansive enough, it would have to be successive acts but if the mind is in touch with multiple sense organs, then it can be simultaneous.

Sri Aurobindo’s views on intuition seem more convincing to me, probably because his spiritual experience was more comprehensive than that of the Nyaya-Vaishesika seers described above.  Sri Aurobindo proposed four ways of awakening the intuitive mind using either the Sahasrara Chakra above the head or the psychic being within the heart. This was covered in a previous article.  When intuition awakens, we may experience it in four ways.   One may feel a latent memory rising from within, one may hear a voice speaking in the ear, one may see a vision (a video) before the eyes, or one may have an unexpected perception as to why something must be true.  For more on this aspect, see Four powers of intuition.   He defined Prakamya as the power by which one becomes aware of objects of various types: those that are at a distance or hidden from the normal operation of the senses, those that belong to inner planes of consciousness, those that existed in the past or will exist in the future, as well as the thoughts and sensations that others had in the past or might have in the future[7].  The powers of the sense-mind (manas) were discussed earlier over here.  In the Record of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo analyzes the variety of reasons that errors can crop up in the workings of intuition.  In some cases, it is because our will interferes with our intuitive perception and distorts the result.   There are also cases where we glimpse a possibility which may not be successfully realized in the future, because there are other forces which may cancel it out.  In the higher planes of consciousness, there are multiple destinies gradually taking shape and not all of them manifest on Earth.   See here for a picture and a brief overview.

Francis Younghusband’s visit to Gyanganj (Shambala)

The Buddhist scriptures mention a place called Shangri-la or Shambala, a home where immortals live, which exists somewhere in Central Asia.  There is an appendix in this book which explores the many legends which surround this mysterious place. One of the stories relates to the British explorer Francis Younghusband (1863-1942).  Here it is:

It happened one day in 1920. Younghusband was roaming in Terai without any escorts with him. Dusk had already fallen and Younghusband just proceeded in the forest area without any clear idea as to where he was going. Suddenly a sadhu(sage) appeared and said in a thunderous voice, “Stop, Younghusband, do not proceed further. From here onwards, God’s place begins”. Scared and angry, Younghusband took out his revolver and told the sadhu who looked like a giant, “Do you know who I am. I am the Resident of the Hon’ble British Government in Nepal. You dare to stop me from moving further?” Younghusband then fired three shots at the sadhu. Astonishingly, though bullets pierced sadhu‘s chest, it made no difference to him. The sadhu then told him, “Younghusband, you have lost your way. Come with me as you need protection. There are wild animals in the forest and you have no more bullets in your gun. You stay with me tonight and go back to your place tomorrow morning.”

When Younghusband entered the “God’s Place” with the sadhu, he found six other sadhus who looked like giants engaged in tapasya (austerities). He also found something like a temple nearby which could be reached only after crossing a small bridge. Inside the temple which was surrounded by small bushes, he witnessed the same site which Ram Thakur found in Yogeswara Asram. There was a huge white crystal Sivalingam placed between four stone pillars and a celestial light emanating from the lingam constantly. He also witnessed the sole worshipper of Yogeswara Siva, a woman of exquisite beauty and grace, a tapasvini (ascetic woman) with matted and braided hair twisted on top of the head (jata jupa), who seemed to be perennially sitting in meditation in front of the Sivalingam….

Next morning when Younghusband came back with his guards to search for the temple and the sadhus, he found the whole area devoid of any people and there was no trace of the Sivalingam or the temple. Younghusband could enter the place only when a denizen of the siddhabhumi (land of sages) took him there. Otherwise, it did not exist for him. Later, Younghusband stayed back in India and took to sannyasa(spiritual initiation). When Ramakrishna Mission celebrated the centenary of Shri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1936) in Belur Math, sannyasi Younghusband addressed the gathering there [8].

This story is said to first appear in Younghusband’s book “My Red diary” but I can’t find any bibliographic record of such a publication right now.  Gopinath Kaviraj wrote a book “Gyanganj” (city of wisdom) in which this story appears.

(Gopinath Kaviraj was a disciple of Vishuddhananda, who had demonstrated his yogic powers to Paul Brunton and Paramahansa Yogananda.  See chapter 11 “The wonder worker of Benaras” in Paul Brunton’s “Search in Secret India” and chapter 5 of Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi“.)


  1. Satya Prakash Singh(ed).  History of Yoga, New Delhi : Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 2010, p 784.
  2. ibid., p 591.
  3. Joshua Foer. Moonwalking with Einstein, New York : Penguin Press, 2011, p 97. (amazon)
  4. Anie Nunnally.  The Golden Path: Interviews with Disciples of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville, Los Angeles: East-West Cultural Center, 2004.  (amazon)
  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lingayatism
  6. Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China: volume 5, Chemistry and chemical technology, Cambridge University Press, 1983, p 285.
  7. Sri Aurobindo, Record of Yoga, CWSA vol. 10-11, p 20
  8. History of Yoga, p 785.

Related Posts

  1. Identifying the signs of spiritual progress
  2. Epistemology of perception
  3. Can I have more than one Guru?
  4. Explaining the Ascent-Descent in Integral Yoga
  5. Why bad things happen to good people
  6. The genesis of Sri Aurobindo’s superman
  7. The message of the Gita
  8. Why read Sri Aurobindo’s books?
  9. Can a brain stroke victim experience Nirvana?
  10. How to distinguish between right and wrong
  11. Religious, mechanical and psychological methods of self-realization
  12. Difference between genius and mysticism

3 thoughts on “History of Yoga – part 2

  1. nizken

    I have a novice’s question on the naming of spiritual teachers & gurus etc and how their titles get popular among the masses.
    Ramakrishna has been called Paramahamsa, Vivekananda is a Swami (meaning a teacher I presume), Ramana has been denoted as Maharishi and Aurobindo is only a mere Sri !!
    Can anyone throw light upon how these gurus got their respective titles and if there is any real reason for those titles (or is it just something assigned by the masses?) In my opinion SA & Mother should be called as Rishis but they are never called that. Was this title of ‘Sri’ something that SA & M themselves chose and used first in their own writings?

    I’d really like to have your views on this matter.

    1. Sandeep Post author

      There seems to be no hard and fast rule. It is partly tradition and partly revelation. In some cases, an influential figure gets impressed by a yogi and anoints him or her with a title. In other cases, they get their name from a Higher Power.

      Paramahansa means “Great Swan” – a pure Being.

      Ramana was given the title Maharshi by Kavyakantha Ganapati Muni, after Ramana successfully answered several of his doubts. See http://www.sriramanamaharshi.org/residing.html

      Narendra Datta first changed his name to Vividishananda during a Viraja homa ceremony in January, 1887 after which he undertook a walking tour of India. At some point during his travels, he also called himself Sachchidananda. Just before leaving India for the (now-famous) Chicago Parliament of religions, it was the Raja of the princely state of Khetri, Rajasthan who asked him to assume the name Vivekananda. When news reports of his Chicago speech filtered back to Calcutta, few people knew that this “Swami Vivekananda” was none other than Narendra Datta, disciple of Ramakrishna. See Life of Swami Vivekananda (vol 2), p 258

      Sri Aurobindo was earlier called “A.G.” It was possibly sometime between 1920-1926 that he became “Sri Aurobindo”, possibly at the behest of the Mother, who led the disciples to shed their casual lifestyle and recognize him as the Guru.

      As for the Mother, she used to be called Mirra by Sri Aurobindo. At some point before 1926, he began uttering the word “Mother” to refer to her. This is a passage from the chapter on “Descent of Krishna” in Srinivasa Iyengar’s biography “On the Mother

      (these remarks are by Nolini) In the beginning, Sri Aurobindo would refer to the Mother quite distinctly as Mirra. For some time afterwards (this may have extended Over a period of years) we could notice that he stopped at the sound of M and uttered the full name as if after a slight hesitation. To us it looked rather queer at the time, but later we came to know the reason. Sri Aurobindo’s lips were on the verge of saying “Mother”; but we had to get ready, so he ended with Mirra instead of saying Mother. No one knows for certain on which particular date at what auspicious moment, the word “Mother” was uttered by the lips of Sri Aurobindo.


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