Yoga & Meditation
Yoga in Stone - Some of the Earliest Sculptural Representation of Yoga Postures
Vijay Sarde| 9 mins read
Nātha sampradāya is a millennia-old Śaiva ascetic tradition of yogīs. It is believed that the foundation of the sampradāya took place from the 11th to 12th centuries with the amalgamation of various tantra and Śaiva traditions. The geographical expanse of the Nātha sampradāya is vast—Nātha shrines are found from Afghanistan to Bangladesh and from Nepal to Tamil Nadu. The Nātha yogīs revere Matsyendranātha and Gorakṣanātha as the foremost yogīs of the sampradāya. Traditionally, Gorakṣanātha is considered to be the disciple of Matsyendranātha. The Nātha yogīs were pioneers of haṭha yoga practices, as proved by unnumerable literary and archaeological records. Some of the earliest known depictions of āsanas appear in Nātha or Nātha related shrines (as will be shown in this article). Some of these āsanas appear much later in our textual records. Further, the canonical haṭhayogic bandhas—mūlabandha, jālandharabandha, and uḍḍīyānabandha—first appear in Nātha texts, e.g. Gorakashshataka, dating from the 12-13th century. Even the advanced praṇayāma practices such as sūryā, śītalī, ujjāyī and bhastrī first appear in the Nātha texts. The canonical 14th century text of haṭha yoga, Haṭhapradīpikā, also belongs to the Nātha sampradāya. As an archaeologist mapping the early archaeological landscape of the Nātha yogīs in western India, I will discuss two temples in Maharashtra belonging to the Nātha tradition where some of the earliest known yoga postures appear in our archaeological record: the Māṇakeśvara temple at Jhodge in Nashik District and the Brahmanātha temple at Parunde in Pune district.Māṇakeśvara temple, JhodgeThe Māṇakeśvara temple is located on the Mumbai-Agra National Highway in the northeast of Malegaon. This Śiva temple was built in the 12th century in the Bhūmija style. Due to the identification of an image of Matsyendranātha on this temple, the early activities of Yoga prevalent in the Nātha tradition can be ascertained. Along with the image of Matsyendranātha, there are sculptures of a Yogī in various yoga poses—Kukkuṭāsana, Vajrāsana, Kubaḍīāsana, Brahmāsana, etc.The above image is of a Yogī in the toraṇa (arch-like structure) above the devakoṣṭha. A fish is shown below the Yogī indicating that it is Matsyendranātha. Other Yogīs have been shown on the temple, but Matsyendranātha is depicted on the devakoṣṭha,[fn1] which shows his significance. The image is small, fragile, and defaced. He is depicted with karṇakuṇḍala. He places his right foot on the ground, and his left hand is on the knee.[fn2]Brahmāsana/Phaṇindrāsana: In this posture, the Yogī places both his legs behind his neck and is shown with his two hands touching the ground. This posture is believed to be similar to that of phaṇindrāsana, pāśinī mudrā, skandhāsana and dvipādasirāsana.Kukkuṭāsana: There is an image of a Yogī seated in Kukkuṭāsana on the jaṅghā portion. He is shown with hands inserted between his thighs, holding up and balancing his body.Vajrāsana: A Yogī is depicted in Vajrāsana seated on his knees with a hand placed on each.Kubaḍī āsana: The Yogī is seated in kubaḍī āsana depicted on the jaṅghā portion. In this āsana, the Yogī is seated in padmāsana and resting on the support of a kubaḍī (crutch).Apart from these, there are several other āsanas carved on this temple, such as ardhaparyaṅkāsana, ardhapadmāsana, and gomukhāsana. These are some of the earliest known depictions of Yoga postures in our archaeological record, and therefore this temple is of historical importance. However, despite its significance, the temple is in an advanced state of disrepair and decay. Urgent work is required to restore and repair this temple, probably under the aegis of the Archaeological Survey of India.Brahmanātha Temple, Parunde (Pune District)The Brahmanātha temple at Parunde in Pune District is also of archaeological importance for its early sculptural representation of yoga poses. The temple is named after Nātha Yogī Brahmanātha, who is believed to have taken samādhi at this place. Based on what remains of its architecture, it can be dated to the 13th century. The decorative pillars of the Brahmanātha temple have rare depictions of different yogic āsanas.[fn3]The temple was renovated sometime in the early 20th century. Only six decorated pillars have survived amongst the sculptural material. These pillars can be classified into two categories— the first comprises four pillars located in the central portion of the hall, with the remaining two pillars, which are on both sides of the doorway of the garbhagṛha, forming the second category. The first type of pillar mainly bears depictions of yogic āsanas.Urdhvadhanurāsana: This āsana is depicted on the western side of the middle octagonal bracket. The image is shown arching backward. The face is touching the ground, and the entire body is balanced on palms.Netī Kriyā: The panel on the southwestern side of the first pillar depicts two images performing what is called the netī kriyā (cleansing of the nasal passage). Though the depiction of the actual action is the same, they are shown sitting in different āsanas.Naukāsana: There are two depictions of this āsana, found on the left-hand side of images on the northern and northeastern panels. The āsana resembles the shape of a boat and hence the name.Pādapaścimottānāsana: This is depicted on the southern side of the pillar on the middle bracket. The yogī is shown seated towards the right with his legs fully stretched. He is bent forward and is holding the right foot with his right hand. Facial features are not clear owing to the erosion in the figure.Ardhamatsyendrāsana: This āsana is depicted on the southeastern panel of the lower bracket. The yogī is shown seated. His left leg is crossed over his right leg, which is bent backwards. He appears to be sitting on his right leg. The body is turned towards the left. His right hand is near his left foot while the left hand is turned upwards. His face is turned backwards. His hair is matted and is tied in a bun. As the nomenclature suggests, this posture is known after Matsyendrāsana. I have provided a brief glimpse of the vast yogic sculptural treasures in hundreds of early temples across India, most of which have been forgotten by history. This is surprising because Yoga has attained immense worldwide popularity, yet its archaeological and literary signature has not received the scholarly attention it merits. These temples lie scattered along the length and breadth of the country, some in complete ruins and others in various stages of ruin. These monuments in stone are our links to the inspiring past of yogīs and ascetics who practised extreme penance their entire lives to get a glimpse of that divine consciousness and, in the process, help raise the whole of humanity nearer to the level of divinity.
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Dwelling in solitude, eating lightly, controlling speech, body, and mind, constantly devoted to yoga meditation, taking refuge in dispassion, relinquishing egotism, force, arrogance, desire, anger, and possession of property; unselfish, tranquil, he is fit for oneness with Brahman.
|| Bhagavad Gīta 18.52-53 ||
When the five perceptions are stilled, together with the mind,
And not even reason bestirs itself; they call it the highest state.
When senses are firmly reined in, that is Yoga, so people think.
- Kaṭha Upaniṣad, 6.10-11