‘Kama and yoga are conjoined twins that have been separated in order for each to survive’

Madhavi Menon explores the history of desire in India in her new book, ‘Infinite Variety’.

“Be a part of a new fitness craze combining the philosophies of yoga with the pleasure of beer drinking to reach your highest levels of consciousness.”

— Online invitation to join a Beer Yoga event in Indore

“This is an attack on Indian culture.”

— Part of the campaign that ensured cancellation of the Beer Yoga event

Despite appearances to the contrary, yoga is perhaps the best example of the mixture and impurity that marks the history of desire in India. Indeed, the first space of impurity is yoga’s complicated relation to desire. There seems to be no link between the Kamasutra’s sexual positions (outlined about a century before Patanjali’s 4th-century CE Yoga Sutra) and the later asanas of yoga.

Even though Wendy Doniger describes the Kamasutra’s postures as “the erotic counterpart to the ascetic asanas of yoga”, the yoga asanas are meant to still desire rather than excite it. But kama does shed important light on the history of yoga in India. Or rather, thinking about kama and yoga together gives us a snapshot of the mixtures that mark Hindu philosophies of body and mind. One of the ways in which these philosophies have historically dealt with cultivating, renouncing, shaping, rejecting, enjoying, dismissing, energising and depleting the desires of the body has been through studies of yogashastra, or knowledge/science of yoga. And another way they have exerted control over the body has been through studies of kamashastra, or knowledge/science of desire. Kama and yoga are conjoined twins that have been separated in order for each to survive.

Scholars are at pains to note that these two strains of yoga and kama coexisted with one another rather than either one trying to stamp out the other.

Nonetheless, what remains true is that Patanjali yoga in India seems to have developed as the opposite of kama rather than as an expression of it. Yoga focuses on freeing the mind and stilling it, while kama studies the means by which to excite the body and heighten its pleasures.

Many centuries after Patanjali, Gandhi becomes the embodiment of these two conflicting strains. As Sudhir Kakar points out in Intimate Relations, Gandhi’s “excessive” interest in sex as a young householder gave way to an obsession with celibacy. Much of this obsessiveness, says Kakar, grew out of intense conversations between the young Gandhi and his jeweller friend Raichandra: “ is evident that a central concern of their earnest exchanges was the relationship of sexuality to ‘salvation’, the transformation of sexual potency into psychic and spiritual power.” In other words, how to use yoga to overcome kama.

While the Rig Veda accords pride of place to kama as the very first thing that came upon the creator, the later Upanishads (around 800 BCE) suggest that kama might not be the only or primary path available to its followers. In addition, they outline the path of the renunciate, the ascetic who gives up on bodily pleasure in order to tame the mind. This latter tradition was embraced by the Buddha as he tried to still the upheavals of an uncertain world by anchoring the mind away from the distractions of the body.

The downgrading of the body for him took several forms, all of which revolved around the renunciation of desire – starvation, celibacy and meditation. The Buddha lived sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, and the first mention of the word “yogi” to mean “ascetic” dates from between the 2nd and 4th centuries BCE. But the Yoga Sutra’s emphasis on meditation (rather than asanas) does not focus on the deprivation model that formed the core of Buddhist meditation. For Patanjali, yoga is not about self-mortification, but rather, about reflexive self-restraint. But even as the Yoga Sutra does not prescribe deprivation, it is far removed from the sensuous indulgence of the Kamasutra’s postures.

This debate between yoga and kama, stillness and excitation, is also a debate within the histories of yoga.

If Patanjali yoga sought to create ascetics who control the body and mind, then the tantric traditions that arose around the 2nd century CE (and flourished towards the end of the millennium) problematise that understanding of yoga. For the tantrics, that which binds you – desire – is also what will set you free. Tantric scriptures did not outlaw alcohol or meat from their recommended yogic diets. Neither did they outlaw sex.

In fact, for many tantrics, the inner energy that yoga sought to distill was to be found in bodily and sexual fluids that are otherwise considered taboo. According to David Gordon White, ritualised orgies were organised – often in graveyards – between tantric yogis and female “messengers” of the goddess who were termed yoginis. With its close alliance to both gastronomic and sexual pleasures of the flesh, tantra yoga defied most of the ascetic practices of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. What tantra also shows is the faultline along which yoga has historically been constructed.

Hatha yoga, the postural yoga that developed out of tantra between the 11th and 15th centuries, considered the body as a hydraulic system that needed to be worked upon in order to channel sexual fluids. Unlike Patanjali’s yoga, which was incredibly cerebral, hatha yoga both arouses the body and allows for mastery of that arousal; it highlights the centrality of a desire that must be controlled. It draws the line between the sensualist who accumulates karma by allowing his seed to spill, and the ascetic who moves his seed upwards and therefore gets out of (obtains moksha from) the cycle of karmic accumulation.

Little wonder, then, that the majority of tantra yoga practitioners are Shaivite, or followers of Shiva, the god of destruction. Being a tantra yogi is to harness the sensual power of Shiva and turn it into millennia of yogic meditation. This is why many tantrics continue to this day to wander around naked with ash smeared over their bodies, and hair grown out in matted locks in imitation of what Shiva is assumed to look like.

For tantrics like the 10th-century CE Kashmiri yogi Abhinavagupta, the point of yoga was to unite the male and female principles – Shiva and Shakti – within one’s self. This union is pointedly non-sexual even as it is deeply physical. The figure of Shiva embodies this paradox – the erotic intensity of his unions with his first wife Sati and then with the reincarnated Parvati is the stuff of legend. But an equal part of the legend is his ascetic lifestyle and secluded abode on top of Mount Kailash. Shiva is both sexual being and renouncer of sexuality. He is a renunciate who understands the intensity of sex. And a sexual being who embraces the value of renunciation.

Excerpted with permission from Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India, Madhavi Menon, Speaking Tiger.

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