Amritasiddhi: The Earliest Shaiva Text of Hatha Yoga

Amritasiddhi makes pioneering advancement in our understanding of the origins of Hatha Yoga. 

Tattva Team
| 8 min read
April 03, 2021
Illustrations by Shreyansh Singh

Amṛtasiddhi is a foundational text of early forms of Haṭha Yoga attributed to Virūpākṣanātha, one of the famous siddhas of the Nātha lineage of yogis. Nātha, who emerged from the tradition of tantric Shaivism, were pioneers of Haṭha Yoga techniques.  Archaeological sources are found across the Deccan region dating from the 12th century, depicting the famous Nāthas in various yogic and meditational poses. It is in this Shaiva milieu of practising ascetics that the text Amṛtasiddhi was written.

Amṛtasiddhi, like the Upanishads and the Shaiva Tantric texts, maps the entire cosmos into the human body. It famously says, “Whatever exists in the three worlds can be found in the human body,”1 and goes on to explain that the central axis of the cosmos, Mount Meru with its three worlds, seven islands, and fourteen planes, resides in the human body. Within the human body are sun, moon, fire, seas, rivers, fields, holy places of pilgrimage (tīrtha) and pīṭhā with its devatās. Lord Viṣṇu both with attributes and without attributes, Lord Śiva, and Prajāpati Brahmā are all located in the body. In short, the human body contains the entire cosmos within itself or rather the human body is a miniature of the cosmos.

In this universal human body, there are various gates and psychic channels. The most important of all is the central channel, madhyamā—the Great Goddess, the great knowledge (mahāvidyā), the mother of the entire universe, hard to attain even by the Gods. She is also called the Suṣumnī and Sarasvatī.  In the doors of her channel, the Lord exists in two forms—with attribute and without attribute. She is the great river Sarasvatī (suṣumnā) flowing between Ganga (iḍā) and Yamunā (Piṅgalā). All the gods are placed along her path.

The text then describes the role of the moon, sun, and fire in the human body. Amṛtasiddhi says that the moon in the skull showers down the amṛta (nectar or seminal fluid) day and night, while the sun, located on the base of suṣumnā (the central channel), swallows this essence and burns all the seven dhatus of the body entirely. The seminal fluid stored in the moon is also called bindu. The goal of Amṛtasiddhi is to stop the bindu from being consumed by the sun at the root of the central channel.

The bindu, says Amṛtasiddhi, is the essence of the body. Whatever exists in the world emerges from this bindu; when the bindu is unsteady, mind and prana are unsteady. This unsteady and constantly dripping bindu leads to suffering, old age and death. If this downward flow of bindu can be reversed and stored in the head, then the yogi attains supreme immortality and becomes an embodiment of Lord Śiva.

Thus the blissful yogin [achieves] a wisdom body, magnificent, indestructible, unchanging, and pervasive, All-encompassing, omnipresent, [he is] Śiva.2 

To attain mastery over the bindu, Amṛtasiddhi recommends three yogic techniques: Mahāmudrā, Māhābandhā and Mahāvedhā. These yogic practices involve advance control of prāṇa through the use of certain yogic mudrās. Through mastery over the movement of the subtle breath, the yogi leads the prāṇa into the central channel of the subtle body. This upward rising breath along the central channel pierces all the three knots – Brahma, Viṣṇu and Rudra – and the life-breath reaches the very summit of the subtle body. Once this happens, the yogi has reversed the process of the downward flow of bindu. This state is called jīvanmukti, liberation in life, a state equivalent to Lord Śiva himself!  

The Amṛtasiddhi concept of bindu retention appears in other Haṭha Yoga texts, including the famous Haṭhayogapradīpika. As the practices of Haṭha yoga became more advanced, these simple practices paved the way for more advanced āsana and prāṇayāma practices, as can be seen from the Haṭha Yoga texts produced from the 15th to 18th century. One thing to note is that Amṛtasiddhi does not talk about Kuṇḍalinī or chakra. This Kuṇḍalinī or chakra form of yoga emerged from the Tantra tradition of Shaivism rather than the other forms of Hindu asceticism.

Recently there has been much academic research in western academia on Amṛtasiddhi and early yoga texts. One prominent academic has claimed that Amṛtasiddhi is a Buddhist-Vajrayana text because, a. there are about 8-10 words in the texts of Buddhist provenance, b. there is a sloka in the text that criticizes other Buddhists for following the Vajrayana form of yoga, and c. the later manuscripts of the texts remove some of these Buddhist words.3

However, there is an acute problem with this thesis of Buddhist origin which I will only briefly touch upon here. First, the cosmology of Amṛtasiddhi—Mount Meru with seven continents and fourteen planes—is exclusively non-Buddhist. Buddhism already had a well-developed cosmology, so if the authors were Buddhist, it is inconceivable that they would use Hindu cosmology to describe their practice. Second, the yogic body with its central channel, whose name is māhāvidyā and is guarded by the Hindu Trinity, is purely a Śaiva-Śakta concept. The term māhāvidyā for the Goddess does not appear in any Buddhist text.

Third, the goal of Amṛtasiddhi is to achieve Jivanmukti, a state equal to that of Lord Śiva. It is unthinkable that the goal of a Buddhist tantric would be to become Śiva. Fourth, the text says that bindu, the essence of the universe, is Sadaśiva which becomes jīva in the human body. This is an exclusive Śaiva metaphysics—the idea of a permanent jīva in Buddhism is non-existent. Fifth, Amṛtasiddhi mentions five elements existing in the universe, while in Buddhism, there are only four elements.4 Sixth, the text mentions the exclusive Hindu goal of four puruṣārthas, which it divides into trivarga – artha, kāma and dharma – and then the last goal of mokṣa. Seventh, the entire text is filled with exclusive Śaiva terminologies such as utkrānti (yogic suicide), pūnya tīrtha (holy pilgrimage), aiśvarya (splendour), vibhuḥ (eminent), niṣkalo (formless) and many others.

Based on the points above, it is hard to defend categorizing Amṛtasiddhi as a Buddhist text. If this is a Buddhist text, with a Śaiva soteriology, cosmology and physiology, then we are in uncharted territory of textual classification, and a lot of ancient Indian texts would need to be reclassified. The western academic, who classify this text as Buddhist, explain away such overwhelming Śaiva features as a result of “porous tradition.” But porous tradition does not explain why a Buddhist might want to become a Śaiva. I hope Indian yoga scholars will come forward to look again at this important early Yoga text.

(To dig deeper, readers can refer to the recently published version of this text by the Kaivalyadhama Yoga society, Pune.5)

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