A Conversation with David Gordon White, Author of The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography

written by Anjula October 14, 2014
Levitating Monkey: How did you first come to be interested in studying Sanskrit and South Asian religions?

David Gordon White: The short answer is that the Beatles came back from India when I was in seventh grade with the beads and the Nehru collars. That was the beginning of that cultural revolution and India was part of that. Another thing that happened two years later, I had a History teacher in high school, when I was in ninth grade, who had been to India and showed us slides of her trip there and spoke with great emotion about the country and its people and it just sort of planted a seed in my mind. So then, I took a course in my second year of college, called History of India. The professor thought I had some good insights and encouraged me to study the languages — Hindi and Sanskrit…so I kind of backed into it. It was kind of in the air in my high school years, by the time I got to college it was an idea that nurtured and grew and became my career, strangely.

David Gordon White: The_Beatles_at_Rishikesh


LM: In junior high, did you study the romance languages?

DGW: Yes, I studied French, which has also served me well. During my twenties and thirties, I actually lived longer in France than in the US and India combined. I studied in France for several years and that is also where I met my wife. I went to France with good reading knowledge. It took me a summer of intensive living in a place where no one spoke English for me to get comfortable with speaking the language, but that came quickly. I picked up a lot of languages since then, but definitely started with French, then Hindi and Sanskrit were two and three.

LM: I read that you studied abroad in India while doing your BA. Can you share with us one of your first reactions when you stepped foot off the plane in India for the first time?
David Gordon White: New Delhi Street

New Delhi Street

It’s the one I always have when I step off the plane in India and that is that it smells so different. As soon as you step off, you smell this combination of wood smoke and animal excrement and just the ancient land and the flowers, it smells so different. After that, the next thing that was a shock to me, was the crowds, the intensity. Being in Delhi the first few days, I can still remember it very well…seeing it, sort of the cliche of the animals in the streets, the chaos of the traffic. India knocks you on your butt right away. Every time I go back, it does it. I always go back, saying, “It’s not going to happen this time, but it does it…every time.”

LM: When was the last time you were in India?

DGW: About a year and a half ago, January of 2013.    

LM: Talk to us about the mystical poems by Gorakhnath and how they lead you to writing The Alchemical Body?

The Alchemical Body

DGW: The preface to that is that is that I was a poor starving student in Paris. Loving the life there, but never having much to live on. One of the things I advertised myself as in Oriental bookstores and such like – I put up little notecards saying that I could translate and teach Sanskrit, Hindi or English to people. (This was in Paris, circa 1978-80). Some French guy who had come back from India contacted me at this time, on the basis of one of those little ads, as he had brought back The Alchemical text, Rasarnavam, the “Ocean of Mercury”– which turned out to be the best, most important of all the Alchemical texts of the Indian tradition. He had picked up an edited volume, a printed volume of the work and he asked me if I could translate it.

I needed the money just then, as I had been accepted to grad school at University of Chicago, but I didn’t have the money to fly back and I knew this would cover my plane fare so I said I’d do it. I spent the next six months translating it into French. It was a very bad translation. I didn’t know enough about the tradition, but I slogged through it. I sent him back a handwritten translation into French of a Sanskrit Alchemical text.

Then about a year later, after I had been at Chicago for about a year – in my second year, I was taking an advanced Hindi class. I was reading with my wonderful Hindi professor, Kali Charan Bahl, these mystic poems by Gorakhnath, whom I place in late 12th-century northwestern India. The language of those poems, which describe the experience that the yogic practitioner feels in his body when he is practicing yoga and describes the yogic body as kind of an enclosed system, with its channels and so forth…I noticed that the language that was being used for the yogic body and its structure and substances and dynamics was very close to that which I had found in that Alchemical text in Sanskrit. Now the Alchemical text, the Rasarnavam, was written in the 11th Century, while Gorakhnath was writing in a vernacular, medieval language, in the 12th to 13th Century. It was sort of a light bulb moment, I thought that maybe there was a connection or maybe Gorakhnath was in some way inspired or guided by the alchemical tradition in his reckoning or at least his expression of how the yogic body works.

David Gordon White: Gorakhnath


It kind of works, because in any alchemical tradition, they’re basically using distilling apparatus’, that are two-chambered. The lower one where you put all the stuff, and the upper one where it all condenses into some sort of a refined essence, and that’s basically the yogic body, too. You have the torso and the head. You put the stuff down at the bottom, it rises to the top, condenses in the head and that is the way he described the internal transformation of the yogic body. 

Because for Gorakhnath and the early hatha yoga tradition, the goal of practice was to raise to your semen, breath and energy from the lower abdomen up to the cranial vault where that semen becomes distilled, refined through the heating process and the pressure of raising them along the chakras…becomes distilled into the nectar of immortality. In much the same way that raw mercury, when it’s heated in an alchemical vessel, when it condenses, (if you do it correctly and enough times), in the upper vessel of the alchemical apparatus, it becomes a pure form of mercury that an alchemist, theoretically, can consume as the nectar of immortality.

So I noted this parallelism between the two traditions and that is the main, the big idea of The Alchemical Body is that that aspect of hatha yoga theory of the Nath yogis, who were the pioneers of that practice and theory, was in some way derived from that Alchemical tradition.

LM: I have heard your three books, The Alchemical Body, Kiss of the Yogini and Sinister Yogis referred to as your “Siddha Trilogy.” Is that something that you thought out as you started writing the first book or did it happen more organically?

David Gordon White: Kiss of the YoginiDavid Gordon White: Kiss of the Yogini Kiss of the Yogini

DGW: Actually, I think I call it a triptych, other people call it a trilogy. Trilogy is more exact, because it’s three books and a triptych is more like a three-paneled painting. Regardless, no, I didn’t think it out from the start. If you read the three books, in a way, it’s better to read them in the opposite order from the order in which I wrote them in because Sinister Yogis, the last one I wrote contains the earliest data on yoga, Kiss of the Yoginis in between and then The Alchemical Body, the one I wrote first, is actually the latest chronologically, in terms of the data on yoga.

This is often the way that the detective work of scholarship works, in that you follow clues, you formulate a hypothesis, you test it, you write it up, but that leaves questions that you then have to follow up on, questions that I was always motivated to try and find answers to. And those questions kept leading me back in time, so The Alchemical Body, written first, opened up questions that I had to go back another five centuries to answer, and those questions are the ones I answer, (to my own satisfaction, at least), in Kiss of the Yogini, but that too left open questions that I then had to go further back in time to answer and that is part of the content of Sinister Yogis. Sinister Yogis starts very early, and ends in the modern period, but it’s that early section that is responding to questions that had been left open by the Kiss of the Yogini.

Some of the questions that those books left open for me and that I then felt motivated to pursue were – The Alchemical Body, especially the fact that the alchemical and the yogic texts are always referring to sexual fluids. Mercury is the mineral form of the semen of the god Shiva and sulfur, the other most important alchemical agent is the mineral form of the uterine blood or the sexual emission of Shiva’s consort, the goddess who goes by many names in those texts. So every alchemical reaction is actually sexual intercourse, the combination of male/female sexual fluids.

Rajas has a very wide semantic field, To begin, it’s whatever females emit. It was presumed in those days that that was what women contributed to making babies. Which was not a given, not a no-brainer, because these combinatory theories of sexual reproduction had only emerged a few centuries earlier in India, that is, the idea that something from the man was complimented by something from the woman in order to make an embryo. Prior to that, it was believed that the man simply ejaculated an embryo into the woman and she became the incubator for the wholly male-generated new being.

Alchemical reactions are always expressed in sexual terms in alchemical texts. In yogic literature, the male and female are called Siva and Shakti (or kundalini),  but they go by many names in those sources. Again, it’s about the mingling of sexual fluids, producing some new being from that. So that was the big question that The Alchemical Body left open for me, “What’s this obsession with sexual fluids? Why did they use that as the root metaphor for these different types of transactions and reactions, some in the laboratory and some in the body?” And that led to my seven year obsession with sexual fluids, which is why in my introduction to Kiss of the Yogini,  I thank my wife for listening to me talk about them at every hour of the day, for seven years, in the process of writing the book.

In Kiss of the Yogini, I dig down to understand what it was about sexual fluids that made them, such, at least, powerful substances to think with. For that, I then delved into the world of tantric yoga, but also into more general Indian theories of sexuality, going back to the medical tradition and the various mystical and philosophical traditions… to this notion of sexuality being productive, it’s not so radical an idea, but the way that medieval Indians thought it through is what interested me.

In Kiss of the Yogini, what I found is that tantric sex, was not, at least in its origins, about expanding your consciousness through the experience of orgasm. But rather, it was actually geared for the production of sexual fluids that the practitioners would then consume orally. They would drink this combination of male/female emissions. This was what made one a full blown tantric practitioner, at least in the case of the male practitioner. He had to drink those female fluids, because otherwise, as a male – he was on the outside looking in to a family tree or flowchart, running down from the god and goddess of original dyad, through the vulvas of a uniquely feminine hierarchy of goddesses, figures called yoginis in the Hindu tradition and dakinis in Buddhist Tantra. It was only through a yogini or dakini that a man could become part of these tantric clans or families, and that membership was necessary to becoming a full-fledged practitioner of Tantra, particularly if you wanted to go for supernatural powers.

There have always been two paths to both Buddhist and Hindu Tantra. One is sort of the mainstream that householders can perform, and that’s a means to liberation in life, or at the end of life. But the more arduous path, the one that the virtuosi followed, was the quest for supernatural powers. Power to control other beings, expand your body, transmute base metals into gold and fly through the air, all those things. And to do that, you had to be initiated and to be initiated you had to drink sexual fluids. There’s a rich literature about how tantric sex was performed for that purpose and not for the purpose of the orgasm that changed the way your mind worked. It was really to get that stuff out of your body and in some cases, to feed it to goddesses and yoginis, as that was their “jet-fuel,” that allowed them to fly through the air, as well. So that was the big idea that Kiss of the Yogini focused on – that sexual fluids were transmitted orally, and that those fluids allowed man to become part of the tantric clan and pursue supernatural powers on the one hand, and on the other, it provided the fuel that powered the flight of the female yoginis and dakinis.

David Gordon White: Sinister Yogis

Sinister Yogis

The question that that book left open in my mind is that in a number of places where you read about these initiations of tantric males, initiations that culminated in the consumption of the conjoined sexual fluids of the guru and the guru’s consort, …it says at the end of those initiations, “…and then, he becomes a yogi.” At that time, in my mind, a yogi was someone who practiced the kind of yoga that we know about (postures, meditation, breathing)…So what was it about drinking sexual fluids to attain supernatural powers that identified someone as a yogi in the Tantras? That was the seed that was planted in my mind and that lead to me writing the book on Sinister Yogis. Once I started reading literature, I found that the stock portrayal of yogis, in both scripture and in secular literature, was that these were  really scary guys who had these supernatural powers and you better be on the right side of yogis or they will take over your body and do what they will with it…That was perhaps, the most interesting discovery I made in the writing of that book – that yogis were especially portrayed as beings that could, by virtue of their supernatural powers, take over other people’s bodies, (more than one, all at the same time), and so create armies of themselves…clones, as it were, of themselves. Or a yogi could take over other people’s bodies by simply going into them and pulling out all the good energy, in order to make his own one body all the more powerful. That tradition of sinister yogis continues down to the present day in South Asia…which in a way sets the backdrop to the world that I describe in my latest book, The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography

When the Yoga Sutras were “discovered” in the nineteenth century, at the time, yoga had a very bad reputation in India and yogis were considered to be devils, at the very worst, and criminals, at the very best. But no one felt warm and fuzzy about yogis, and when people used the term, “yogi,” it was a negative term. Other terms that we today consider to be synonymous with “yogis,” such as “renouncers,” “sannyasis” and so forth – those were not considered to be synonymous with “yogis,” back one to two hundred years ago. In many circles today, they’re still not considered to be synonymous. “Yogi,” has a definite semantic field that refers to the dark side of tantric practice. So that’s how I wrote those three books, actually, four books, in a way, if you count the last one, (but then it’s not a trilogy anymore).

LM: Do you feel that with all you’ve researched and experienced, studied and written, you are closer to understanding what you were seeking?

DGW: What I have now, I believe is a fairly accurate historical overview of how the ideas of yoga and yogis developed through time. So there’s no “it” there, there’s a bunch of different “its” – because, with “yoga,” there are many of them, and with “yogis” there are many of them. The terms have had many meanings over time and they’ve morphed with other traditions, like the alchemical one, like the tantric one, like the philosophical one, like the new age one, over the centuries. I’m at least confident that I understand the chronology of how those ideas changed. There are, of course, details that I’m no doubt missing, but that is what scholarship is about, you put your ideas out there, people knock them down after five, ten, twenty, thirty years and that’s all well and good. But I am completely satisfied with what I have right now.

LM: Can you talk to us about self-projection and body possession, what you refer to as ‘omni-presencing’, and how these are the keys to South Asian religion?

DGW: This one is a hard one to answer in a sound bite, but let me see what I can do. One of the attributes of powerful beings, beginning with gods, is that he or she is everywhere…just like in the Bible, god is everywhere. That’s expressed and understood in a quite literal sense, details of which are provided in various theological and philosophical Indian texts, an important one being The Hymn of the Man, a hymn from the Rig Veda (Book 10, Chapter 90), where it says that, the Man, (Purusha), pervades all of space and even extends beyond the limits of space and time. The same idea gets picked up again in the Bhagavad Gita, which I date to around the third century, in which, Krishna, speaks of his own omni-presencing when he shows his universal form on the battlefield to Arjuna, the warrior whom he’s serving as charioteer to. And that’s what Arjuna sees. He sees Krishna’s head brushing heaven at the top of the universe and his feet touching the bottom – the earth – with all the creatures of the universe either going into his many mouths or coming out of his many mouths. So he’s both space and time, the continuum, he’s life and death, he’s all those things. So, God, from the earliest times, is described as being omni-present, being everywhere at all times, in all of space.

What is new, in at least one of the Indian yogic traditions, is that yogis can do this, too. This emerges in the literature post Bhagavad Gita, during the medieval period. Yogis, through their practice, can expand their bodies and their consciousness to the limits of the universe, (both spatially and temporally). So that’s why yogis have these supernatural powers, being able to see into the past, into the future, because they can cover all of time and they can see things that are hidden from view, because they are everywhere.

Now how do you get to be everywhere? Well, it’s through these yogic practices where you eventually expand your body to fill the universe or you become a parallel universe, it depends on what text you are reading and there’s no question that this was taken in a literal sense – people believed this of yogis, and people who aspired to be yogis pursued this as their goal: to, in a sense, become embodied universes…To view the universe in the same way that God views the universe, that’s the way an enlightened yogi who’s done the practice sees the universe: as “I,” as “my own Self.” So that’s the short answer to the question, getting to the details is hard.

LM: In The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography, your sense of humor really comes through as you wrestle with the question of the relevance (or irrelevance) of Patanjali’s masterwork to contemporary postural yoga. You point the mirror the other way. As you were researching, then writing this book, were you concerned at all about how the book would be received by those in the yogic community, (both academic and practitioners, alike)?

The “Yoga Sutra of Patanjali”: A Biography

DGW: The short answer is ‘yes.’ That is to say, I knew that I was going to upset a lot of people and put into question a lot of cherished beliefs held by the modern yoga subculture, even before I started writing the book. There was no doubt in my mind that the Yoga Sutras had very little relevance to the way people practice yoga around the world today, including me, (I have practiced, even though I’m a bit lapsed right now). But I wasn’t ready for the discoveries I subsequently made in the researching  – that not only was yoga, as we know it, no longer being practiced to speak of in India, but also that by the time the British arrived in the nineteenth century, the Yoga Sutras, had been all but forgotten for several centuries.. I knew I was going to upset people. I tried to be as gentle as I could in making my points. even though I knew that they would not be well received by many practitioners. And I say that with particular reference to the great father of the yoga that most people practice in the west, Krishnamacharya, whose biographers make him out to be a great Yoga Sutras connoisseur who also subscribed to the idea that the Yoga Sutras have always been the guide to yoga practice as we know it.

I had to pop those bubbles. The historical data made it clear that Krishnamacharaya didn’t have that great a grasp on the Yoga Sutras, at least not early in his life, and that the connections that he and particularly, Desikachar, his son, have made between his teachings and the Yoga Sutras are not very well founded, historically. If you read the chapter on Krishnamacharaya, the twelfth chapter of the book, you can see that in fact, what they teach outsiders about Krishnamarcharya and the Yoga Sutras, is not what they tell one another in their inner circle. I am referring specifically to the Yogavalli that only exists in Sanskrit and Tamil and has never been published. It’s only circulated among that inner circle and I managed to get a copy of it from someone who shall remain nameless because I don’t want to endanger that person’s career.

As I go on to describe in my latest book, the episodes in Krishnamacharya’s life where he goes to Tibet to learn about the Yoga Sutras at the feet of Rama Mohan Bramachari and some of the other biographical details that sort of form the legendary life of Krishnamacharya – they are not acknowledged in that Yogvalli text, where they are told in a different way; and they don’t stand up to historical muster when you dig down. It could not have happened in the historical timeframe that the biographers of Krishnamacharya propose.

So yes, that has been a concern. Some of my best friends are yoga practitioners. Some of my best friends are yoga gurus and some of them are followers of some disciple of Krishnamacharya. But at the same time, I’m a flat-footed historian and I need to tell it like I think it is, and there was a tension there for me to tell what I consider to be the unvarnished truth, that you come to by sifting through historical evidence, your own reconstruction of what happened versus what other people have said.

LM:  In the book, you describe how the Yoga Sutra, which has taken on iconic significance with respect to the practice of modern yoga, has been completely misunderstood and manipulated to mean different things over the past millennium. What was one of the most surprising findings you uncovered as you researched for this book?

DGW: Well, even before I researched the book, I knew that there were only a handful of verses in the one hundred ninety-five verses of the Yoga Sutras that relate to modern practice: the three or four or five verses on breathing and postures. The rest is on metaphysics. That’s point A, from  which everything else follows. That it’s not a guide to the kind of practice that people identify as yoga today. You can’t practice the breathing and the postures on the basis of the Yoga Sutras or even the early commentaries.

Furthermore, the really shocking thing that came to me, apart from the fact that the Yoga Sutras had more or less fallen out of anyone’s memory for hundreds of years before the nineteenth century, was that even the ashtanga yoga, the eightfold practice that is taken to be the foundation for what is taught in yoga studios around the world, is not grounded in the Yoga Sutras. Ashtanga yoga is described in the Yoga Sutras: there are thirty verses devoted to it in chapters one and two. However, the way ashtanga yoga— the eight limbs of yoga (Yama :  Universal morality, Niyama :  Personal observances, Asanas :  Body postures, Pranayama :  Breathing exercises, and control of prana, Pratyahara :  Control of the senses, Dharana :  Concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness, Dhyana :  Devotion, Meditation on the Divine, Samadhi :  Union with the Divine) – is understood today does not draw on the very shorthand description found in the Yoga Sutras. Instead,  it is derived nearly directly from the way the eightfold practice is described in the Puranas, the great medieval encyclopedias of Hindu theism, works that cover every aspect of religious devotion to Shiva, Krishna, or the Great Goddess. These great medieval works, these encyclopedias of devotion, were called the Puranas, and about a dozen Puranas have a chapter in them on ashtanga yoga and that’s the ashtanga yoga that appears to be the much more direct source of what people teach today, than what the Yoga Sutras said.

Narada Purana

A Page from Narada Purana’s Chapter on Yoga


The major point of difference being that in the Yoga Sutras, the goal of practice is not union with a transcendent Self, call it God or what you will. But rather, it’s isolation of the individual person (Purusha), from nature, from matter, from materiality…so these are totally opposing goals, totally different metaphysics to which the eightfold practice could be applied, but the goal of the practice is radically different in the two cases. It’s the Puranic goal that you generally read about in the writings of modern yoga gurus. It’s about the union with God, finding God within. That is certainly not what the Yoga Sutras or its first commentator, Vyasa, considered the goal of the practice to be.

In short, the two most important things were that the tradition had died for several hundred years and was not really resurrected until Vivekananda at the turn of the twentieth century and that even that small sliver of the Yoga Sutras that purport to be about the “practice,” as people know it today, had a very different context than the context that people assume.         

LM:  Talk to us about Alberuni, the Muslim scientist and scholar who translated a commentary on the Yoga Sutra a thousand years ago.
David Gordon White: Alberuni


DGW: Alberuni lived and wrote at the time that the Yoga Sutras were hitting their high water mark. There was a period of about four to six hundred years, from about 700-1200, give or take, that lots of people were reading the Yoga Sutras, writing commentaries and referring to it and we can extrapolate from that that it really was a widely respected and widely known tradition before its decline, which began around the year 1200.

Alberuni was right in the middle of that period, he lived around the year 1000 and he was this brilliant Muslim who was kidnapped from the court where he was serving as a court scientist  and court philosopher, in a country close to the Caspian Sea, way, way west of India. He was kidnapped from there by Mahmoud of Ghazni, the great Muslim empire builder whose power base was in Afghanistan. Mahmoud put Alberuni into his own court, which was a moving court because Mahmoud was always invading places, usually India.

Alberuni spent most of his time in what would be today’s Punjab, in the northwestern part of India. He was there, for about twelve years, during which time he learned Sanskrit, and, because he was himself so interested in astronomy and the hard sciences, the Indian cognates of Muslim astronomy and science. He then wrote a really important work called Indika, which comprises a historical ethnography of India, written in the eleventh century by a very learned and sympathetic scholar.

In Indika, he says that “I with my own hands have translated an Indian work called, the Yoga Sutras.” That statement tantalized people over the centuries because that translation was nowhere to be found. Until, in 1922, when a French Islamicist named Louis Massignon found this lost translation by Alberuni into Arabic, of the Yoga Sutras, scribbled into the margins of another manuscript in an Istanbul archive.

Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, a couple named Schlomo Pines and Tuvia Gelblum, brought out a full English-language translation of Alberuni’s commentary. What Alberuni wrote wasn’t just a commentary, it was actually a paraphrasing of the Yoga Sutras, although it leaves out the entire fourth and book and it jumbles the order of a lot of the verses, but it’s clearly Pantajali’s work. So it gives an interesting window into how non-Hindus were understanding the Yoga Sutras in that period.

So in a way, Alberuni was a pioneer for all Yoga Sutras translators, because he was the first, or perhaps the second person to ever translate the Yoga Sutras into a foreign language. (There is another translation found in Java, Indonesia, that dates from about the same time as Alberuni. It was written in old Javanese, and it too, doesn’t have the fourth book in it,). This tells us that the Yoga Sutras was a cosmopolitan work a thousand years ago, that then fell into relative obscurity, and has become a cosmopolitan work once again, but only in the last one hundred years or so.

We see Alberuni struggling with that as he looks to translate words like “Purusha” “asana,” “divinity” and “klesha” into Arabic. His translation tells a lot about the difficulty of translating, but his translation is also a precious resource for comprehending the way in which the Yoga Sutras were understood in that period; and also the state of the Yoga Sutras, because apparently there was no fourth book in the Yoga Sutras in Alberuni’s time, or at least, he was not aware of it. And that brings up the question of “Was the Yoga Sutras, as it was known in the eleventh century the same as it is known today? And that has been an open question among scholars for over a century. Was that fourth chapter a part of the original text or not? So there are lots of interesting things that one can learn from Alberuni’s translation of the Yoga Sutras in the eleventh century.

LM:  You cover so many important figures, can you speak to us of the British Orientalist Henry Thomas Colebrooke, who “discovered” the sutras in the early 1800s and made them palatable to Western civilization?

DGW: The “discovery” of the Yoga Sutras, which had long since fallen into oblivion, was made by this British Civil Servant named Henry Thomas Colebrooke. Colebrooke was one of the first Europeans to learn Sanskrit, to become an accomplished Sanskritist. Then about thirty years into his career (this was actually after he had returned to Europe from India), he wrote up the earliest important study of the Indian philosophical schools. It was a three-part study, and the first part was devoted to Samkyha and Yoga philosophy. It was there that the English-speaking world first learned of this work called the Yoga Sutras, as a philosophical text on yoga.

Colebrook didn’t particularly care for the Yoga Sutras, but he gave it a balanced account, in a very small number of pages, about six. But it got picked up by others in both India and Europe, including Hegel, the great German philosopher. Fast-forward fifty or sixty years, it was his legacy, that discovery, that putting out there of the Yoga Sutras, that had been pretty much lost to memory that made Madame Blavatsky and Vivekananda possible.

LM:  Can you share a bit about Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who fused the principles of the Yoga Sutra with Western ideas of the occult?
David Gordon White: Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky

Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky

DGW: Madame Blavatsky was one of the founders of the Theosophical Society. This was this spiritualism of the late nineteenth century when séances and ectoplasm and magnetic currents and ether were all the vogue. That was believed to be science, today we would call it, “scientism,” sort of a pseudo-science. There’s a science of vibrations that all beings give off, including the dead, and this was Madame Blavatsky’s forte. She was what we call a “channeler” today, and she was very gifted at that. She could channel notorious beings from far away in time and space and her cast of characters, the wise men that she channeled, varied at different times of her life.

An important turning point came in the 1880s, when she travelled to India. She was pretty much exiled from the United States and Europe because her blockbuster bestseller, Isis Unveiled, was shown to contain two thousand cases of plagiarism. For that reason, she left western society under the cloud of scandal. She went to India and set up shop down in Madras, today’s Chennai.

Once she got to India, the wise men that she was channeling, suddenly turned out to be Indian wise men and they were somewhere in the magnetosphere, somewhere in the ether, above the Himalayas, where all the wisdom of the world was thought to have come from, by that time, because of the influence of the European Romantics of about a century earlier. What they were revealing to her was not that different from what she had written about in her earlier books. But once she was in India, she started using Indian vocabulary. For instance, whereas earlier, she used the term, “ether” for sort of this great ocean of energy in which everyone and everything is bathed, she changed the word “ether” to “akasha,”which is the Sanskrit word for ether or space.

And rather than talk about magnetic energy, she started talking about prana. Prana, which is word that etymologically, in every context but the theosophical one, means breath. She tweaked it to mean magnetic energy, the energy that flows through the body. So we see her adapting her ideas to an Indian idiom. That gave her another several years of notoreity, since it allowed her to recycle her old ideas with Indian ones now. Then she got caught in another scandal, went back to Europe and died.

Her Theosophical Society laid the groundwork for the western interest in the Yoga Sutras and yoga. By the time she arrived in India, the Yoga Sutras would have been translated into English: and while they weren’t making waves, they were known at least. Madame Blavatsky was one of the first Europeans to say that there was something good about the yoga of the yogis in India, and she then provided her take on it. She and her Society were instrumental in changing the Western and the Indian view of yoga and yogis from that sort of sinister paradigm I was talking about earlier to something else. And it was they who were responsible for early translations of many foundational yogic texts. They did their own translations of the Yoga Sutras, but they also brought out the earliest English translations of hatha yoga works, like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Shiva Samhita and the Gheranda Samhita. They lay the groundwork for the next person that brought it all back to the West. That was Vivekananda.

LM:  For those not familiar, can you tell us why Swami Vivekananda and Tirumalai Krishnamacharya are considered to be so instrumental in making Yoga accessible to the west?
David Gordon White: Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda

DGW: After the Theosophists, whose importance is not to be underestimated in terms of making yoga available to the west, Vivekananda was the great prophet of not only yoga, but also an enlightened form of Hinduism to the west. The western view of India and its gods was that there were too many gods with too many heads and too many arms and all the rest. It was a pretty jaundiced view. And Vivekananda was this articulate, highly educated orator who just blew people away. He gave something like seventeen lectures at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Suddenly, he was the darling of high society, particularly in the northeast, Boston, New York, Philadelphia. In these cities, there was also a new age culture, at the time, that was also being expressed in some of the new religions, like Christian Science, which was actually the religion that I was brought up in.

That sort of western spirituality found the yoga that Vivekananda was formulating to be very sympathetic to their own ideas. This worked both ways. As Vivekananda saw how it was appealing to his western audiences who had their own ideas about magnetism and harmonial religion, ether, mesmerism, seances and so forth…he massaged the teachings of the Yoga Sutras into a way that would be the most attractive to his western audiences. This was done, to some extent, at the expense of accuracy. At times, Vivekananda makes the Yoga Sutras sound like scientific text. He talks about, for example, evolutionary theory in the Yoga Sutras. He also talks about electromagnetic theory in the Yoga Sutras, but then he also presents it as the essence of enlightened Indian thought, which was so far away from the stereotypes that the West then had of Hindu India as a backward, benighted place of superstition and polytheism and all that.

The Yoga Sutras, about which he wrote the groundbreaking western commentary in 1896, under the title of The Raja Yoga, was his calling card. He would lecture and give workshops on yoga wherever he went. He did this not only to spread the gospel of enlightened Hinduism, but also to raise money for his projects back in India…to reform Hinduism, to make it as enlightened as he and people like him thought it was before it had been buried under centuries of priestcraft and intervention by Muslims and others. He presented the yoga of the Yoga Sutras, what he calls Raja Yoga, as this ideal nonsectarian work of Indian genius. This work was both the work of practice and of theory. He was very good at presenting it that way, both in his Raja Yoga book, his many lectures, and the multitude of writings that he generated in his short life. He died just a few years after the Raja Yoga book came out. He’d only been in the West for a few years, then his life ended. But, he left this great mark with The Raja Yoga and the establishment of what is called the Vedanta Society here in the West, an institutional beachhead for the enlightened Hinduism of India’s intellectual class of which Vivekananda was very much a member.

Vivekananda combined that with the mysticism of one of his Indian teachers, Ramakrishna, so you also find some elements of Tantric Yoga and Hatha Yoga in his teachings on the Yoga Sutras. That is also important because all that have followed him have done the same: both Indian gurus and Western gurus mix together Hatha and Tantric Yoga with the yoga of the Yoga Sutras, but they say it’s all based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which is inaccurate.

Following Vivekananda, not a lot happened for a couple of decades. In the West, a few other yoga gurus followed in Vivekananda’s footsteps. The most illustrious among them was of course, Paramahamsa Yogananda, whose ashram is located about fifteen minutes from where I live, in Pacific Palisades. That’s the one he set up in the 1920s. But beyond that, there were very few Indian holy men coming to the west in the decades following Vivekananda, because American immigration laws suddenly became totally xenophobic and Asians were not going to get into this country for another forty-five to fifty years.

Those immigration laws were only loosened in the sixties, just in time for the Beatles and the cultural revolution and the yoga explosion that this country has known in the succeeding decades. Back in India, there was this thing called the “Yoga Renaissance” that followed Vivekananda, but it wasn’t about the Yoga Sutras or yoga philosophy or the teachings of Patanjali. It was more about what would be called the medicalization of yoga, which was much more grounded in hatha yoga than the Yoga Sutras. It was basically about how yoga techniques could be used to improve one’s health. That has remained an important focus of yoga theory and practice, ever since.

Then you get up to the 1920s and 1930s and there are two important Indian specialists of yoga, (important for different reasons). One is Krishnamacharya whom I mentioned earlier, the other is Hariharananda Aranya, who is much more obscure as a teacher, because he wasn’t looking to attract a large number of students or leave a large legacy, it would appear. Evidence for that is that he walled himself into a cave about fifteen years before he died and no one could talk to him except for a hole in the cave wall, so he wasn’t out to get a big following. But he did write the most important modern commentary on the Yoga Sutras and that is called Bhasvati, in Bengali. The best translation for that would be “Dawning Light.” This commentary on and translation of the Yoga Sutras has been widely embraced by scholars, both in India and the West, as an important and insightful early twentieth century reading of the Yoga Sutras.. Hariharananda Aranya’s legacy is pretty much limited to scholars who have bought and read his book, in English translation.

Krishnamacharya who was a much lesser scholar of yoga, in spite of the efforts of his biographers to the contrary, has had the greatest influence on modern yoga practitioners, mainly through the teachings and writings of his illustrious pupils (BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois and TRV Desikachar). Their accounts of his understanding of the Yoga Sutra, which they themselves retell in their own writings, turns out to be quite a superficial understanding of the Sutras and is one that draws far more extensively on the ashtanga yoga of the Puranas than on the Yoga Sutras, themselves. But nonetheless, he is the one who has had the greatest impact on popular understandings of the Yoga Sutras, and virtually every translation, commentary, study of the Yoga Sutras done by yoga gurus, east and west, has been of that same ilk (relatively superficial), based on Krishnamacharya’s understanding, which was based on works other than the Yoga Sutras, for the most part.

LM:  I read somewhere that your next project is about the spread of demonology along the Silk Road…can you tell us how that subject matter came to be of interest?

DGW: When I was working on Kiss of the Yogini, it was in the process of doing the research and writing for that, that I came to realize that the yoginis are the heiresses to earlier traditions of demonology. That they are, in a sense, tamed demonesses. Those demonesses from earlier Indian traditions were very scary – they basically ate everybody. The only way you could protect against them was to get the right mantras. The Tantras were the places where one could find those mantras to control yoginis and eventually gain power over them, and make them your lover, which is what tantric yogis were out to do…at least the ones who were after those supernatural powers.

But it was in looking into the demonological origins of the yoginis that I got interested in the topic of Indian demonology. Particularly, there’s one Tantra, called the Netra, The Tantra of the Eye, that was written in Kashmir, in the ninth century.. It has a very long chapter, the nineteenth, which is devoted to demonology. It’s about two hundred fifty verses long and a has a great commentary written in the eleventh century by Kshemaraja. I found stuff in there that I wanted to follow up on, there’s some terminology in there and practices that indicated that this was a not a wholly Indian product. I began to look further afield and I found parallel terms in Buddhist texts from an earlier time. Particularly ones that were found in Dunhuang in Western China, along the Silk Road, from earlier than the time of the Netra Tantra. There’s also some language in those texts that is Persian.

The Persians were the great merchants along that Silk Road, so I started looking west and found that yes, certain aspects of these Indian demonological characters came out of Persia. And I kept looking further, and it appears that some of these demons came out of ancient Rome. Not to say that none of it is unique or original to India, just that the Silk Road was the world’s information superhighway before Al Gore invented Internet. Everything came up and down that road, including camels and stuff, as well as ideas and spells, amulets and charms. Demons travel lightly, you don’t need an elaborate metaphysical theological system to carry a demon. You just need a spell, a mantra, and an amulet, along with a little bit of knowledge about what it looks like and how it works. People have always been concerned about what ails them, and demons were (and often remain) a common explanation for that.

Long story short, I think there’s a lot more to be found in that realm of contacts and exchanges along the Silk Road, which in fact, was the subject of the first book I ever wrote. My PhD dissertation was called, Myths of the Dog-Man. The subject for this was the mythology of the so-called “monstrous races,” a mythology that traveled up and down the Silk Road, between China, India and the West. So, I’m going back to my origins in that respect, comparative study, but not mythology so much this time, as my current research is more about rituals and theories of demonology.

I’ve written a couple of articles on it that are found in obscure little publications, and I’m currently working on more stuff.

About David Gordon White

David Gordon White received his Ph.D. (with Honors) from the Divinity School at the University of Chicago in 1988. He also studied Hinduism at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, France, between 1977-1980 and 1985-1986. A specialist of South Asian religions, he is the J. F. Rowny Professor of Comparative Religions at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he has been teaching since 1996. Prior to coming to Santa Barbara, he taught at the University of Virginia between 1986 and 1996. There, he founded the University of Virginia Study Abroad Program in Jodhpur, India in 1994. White is the sole foreign scholar to have ever been admitted to the Centre d’Études de l’Inde et de l’Asie du Sud in Paris, France, where he has been an active Research Fellow since 1992.

He is the author of four books, all published by the University of Chicago Press: Myths of the Dog-Man (1991); The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India (1996); Kiss of the Yoginī: “Tantric Sex” in its South Asian Contexts (2003) and Sinister Yogis (2009). He also edited Tantra in Practice (Princeton University Press, 2000): his introduction to that volume is considered to be the most comprehensive definition of the multi-faceted tradition known as Tantra published to date.Myths of the Dog-Man was listed as one of the “Books of the Year” in the 1991 Times Literary Supplement’s end-of-year edition; Kiss of the Yoginī was on the cover of the same journal’s May 20, 2004 edition. Sinister Yogis received an honorable mention at the 2009 PROSE awards and was listed as a book of note by CHOICE in 2011. A Japanese edition of Myths of the Dog-Man was brought out by Kousakusha in 2001; Italian (Edizioni Mediteranee) and Indian (Munshiram Manoharlal) editions of The Alchemical Body appeared in 2004. He currently has two other books under contract with Princeton University Press: Yoga in Practice (November 2011) and The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: A Biography (2013).

White has been the recipient of several research fellowships and grants, including a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (2007-2008) and three Fulbright Research Fellowships for India and Nepal. A panel to honor his scholarship was part of the program of the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, held at Chicago on November 1, 2008. A CV and full list of David Gordon White’s publications can be found here.


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A Conversation with David Gordon White, Author of The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography
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A Conversation with David Gordon White, Author of The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography
David Gordon White is a Professor of Comparative Religions at UC Santa Barbara & author of several books, including The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography
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