I know! I’m a day late! But I didn’t get a chance to … anyway you can find a great article on Diwali – my favourite Indian Feast Day – HERE
Yoga and Ayurveda have led parallel lives in India throughout the millennia, rather than intertwined and interacted. A little like Kahlil Gibran’s image of marriage as two trees growing side by side, not one tree.
Ayurveda is the traditional Indian medical system. Its sole aim is physical and mental well-being in this life. It begins by classifying people according to the three doshas, Vata (air), Pitta (fire) and Kapha (water). As the authors put it, “Dosha means ‘what causes things to spoil’ and relates to the disease-creating potential of the humors. Vata means ‘wind'; Pitta means ‘bile'; and Kapha refers to ‘mucus and phlegm.’ Wind, bile and mucus are the three main forms of toxins that cause pain and disease as they accumulate in the body. Wind causes dryness, stiffness, nervousness and debility. Bile, which is a form of fire, causes infection, inflammation, bleeding and fever. Mucus causes congestion, edema and obesity.” There is much more detail in the book, but that sums it up neatly.
People are born with one of these doshas prevalent in their constitution, and according to which dosha it is, Ayuveda prescribes an ideal diet and way of life for them. This is not the time to go further into the question of diet and way of life. I will do that when reviewing a couple of the best books on Ayurveda. The book I am considering today, despite the excellent discussion of Ayuveda and the doshas in the opening chapters, is first and foremost a Yoga instruction manual, and a very good one.
What we have to understand is that modern Yoga, and not only in the West, has changed its emphasis, grown closer to Ayurveda.
When Vyasa, in the 4th century AD, compared and contrasted Yoga and Ayurveda (in his commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras), he said that in Yoga the disease was existence in this world and the only cure release from the cycle of reincarnation. And that is the point. The traditional Yoga of India is fundamentally life-negating. The practice of the yamas and niyamas, pranayama and asanas and mudras, make it possible for one to meditate without distracting physical distress and discomfort (their main purpose) and may also enable one to live longer and in such adverse circumstances as the middle of the jungle or high in the Himalaya. And, yes, we can talk about different yogas such as Bhakti Yoga and Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga so on, but they have little or nothing to do with the maintenance of good health and the treatment of dis-ease, physical and psychological, that we in the West think of as “Yoga” or “Yoga Therapy”.
What the authors do in this book – it is probably the best of Frawley’s many books, and certainly in my view the most useful – is to put the positive, life-sustaining (if not life-affirming) side of Yoga alongside the principles of Ayurveda and come up with a system.
First you must establish your prakriti, your constitution, the Dosha that predominates in your make-up. They provide a questionnaire to enable you to do this. Then for each asana he tells you both the effect it has on the Doshas – does it tend to increase or decrease them? – and how you should go about performing the asana, dependent on your constitution. Fantastic. Really. That, and the long-term programs for pacifying each Dosha in the last section of the book, are perhaps the most helpful and comprehensive guide to yoga practice ever produced.
But nothing is perfect, and we do quickly run into some problems. First of all, what is known as your vikruti, your doshic balance, or rather imbalance, now (as opposed to your prakriti, your natural/innate doshic constitution) is not really taken into consideration. And it is very important. Which means you need more than this book. Ideally, you should find an expert to diagnose your situation, your vikruti, now. Then you will be able to make full use of this book.
Secondly, it is a fact that most people do not fall neatly into one single doshic category. For instance, I am a mixture, physically and psychologically, of Vata and Pitta. A friend of mine is clearly Pitta physically, but just as clearly Vata psychologically. The authors give little or no advice concerning this difficulty. Again, get advice from an expert. A book can only do so much.
And now I would like to warn you against an earlier book by David Frawley, Yoga & Ayurveda. The same subject, more or less, but not nearly so well done. Instead of focusing on the asanas, as the later book does so well, it tries to cover the whole of Yoga and the whole of Ayurveda. The result is simply a confused and confusing introduction to the two subjects.
But there is worse: an underlying attitude throughout the book that I, for one, find extremely irritating. I think it is the Indian pretensions. For much of it is not really Indian at all, it is simply trendy western greenism which, while it may have a lot to be said for it, has absolutely nothing to do with either Yoga or Ayurveda. For instance, in the chapter entitled “The Era of Bad Food” Frawley says: The quality of food in our culture is generally low, as most of us have come to know. [Because we keep being told so by people like him.] [...] Poor food quality begins with bad soils, chemical fertilizers, and the use of insecticides and herbicides on the plants, the long term effects of which are unknown. [...] On top of this comes the processing of food, which may include irradiation, freezing and canning, along with additives and preservatives of all types. As if this was not enough, our cooking procedures involve microwave ovens, over-cooking, and an excess [sic] use of oils, sugar, salt and spices.
Compared with Indian food, Western food is virtually devoid of oils and spices. But that is not the point I wish to make. All this that he finds so bad is how the world is fed. Without the use of fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides it would be hard to feed one billion people, let alone six billion. He says the long term effects of eating such food are unknown. The long term effect of not eating such food is, for 80% of the world’s population, starvation.
And another thing. Anyone who says that “the quality of food in our culture is generally low” must have absolutely no notion of what food used to be like before the era of refrigeration and canning and so on. For large parts of the year there was little or no food for anyone, even the rich. People today live longer, and the population is growing, precisely because of the ready availability of good food – yes, good food: meat and fish that does not stink, vegetables that are not rotten, grains that are not mouldy.
He goes on: Unfortunately, the coming century stands to inherit not only bad food, but bad water and bad air as well. Is he not aware that until recently people drank beer and wine all the time in towns and cities because the water was toxic? In the Middle Ages and through to Victorian times, everyone was always mildly inebriated all the time. And as for the air, with no flush toilets and open sewers and rotting meat and vegetables everywhere …
But, he says, “We can at least get good bottled water.” Really. How many people in India can afford to drink bottled water? How many people in the West can afford to drink bottled water?? At least this shows his view point: that of an extremely wealthy westerner.
Thankfully, in the later book, all this nonsense has been avoided.
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Tags: asanas, David Frawley, doshas, prakriti, Sandra Summerfield Kozak, vikruti, Yoga and Ayurveda, Yoga for your Type
Categories : Book Reviews, Non-Fiction (Hinduism and Yoga)
I have been criticised – no, that’s a little harsh, it was simply a comment – because despite all the hints and promises when I started this blog I have in fact posted little or nothing on India or yoga or philosophy. Also, my colleague at Medieval Mysteries, M.B.Gilbride, reminds that I promised ages ago to do something on Indian comics.
So let me kill at least two birds with one post by reviewing an unbelievably good Indian comic, actually a graphic travel book, published by Indica Books for visitors to Kashi, otherwise known as Banaras, Benares, Varanasi. Anyone remotely interested in the real India should head for Varanasi (that’s what I know it as) at some point during their visit to the sub-continent – and by that I suppose I mean at some point during their lives.
The book is called, appropriately, A Pilgrimage to Kashi, Kashi, the City of Light, being the original name of this Holy City, believed by all Hindus to be the oldest city in the world. It is designed not just for foreign visitors, not even primarily for foreign visitors, but for Indians coming on pilgrimage to Kashi from all over India. Remember that India is home to a billion people who, never having suffered under a totalitarian government – unlike the Chinese – still speak many different languages, and that publishing a book in English is one way of making it accessible.
As you see, it is subtitled “HISTORY, MYTHOLOGY AND CULTURE OF THE STRANGEST AND MOST FASCINATING CITY IN INDIA” and that is how it begins – look at the first page, here.
But it manages to combine this with the story of a typical Indian family visiting Varanasi from their home in Bombay (Mumbai) – see the page where they are introduced, here. Notice the different attitudes, especially the daughter’s, which is all too common in India today.
Then we accompany these four people as the uncle, who lives in Varanasi, shows them round the old city and the ghats (the steps leading down to the river) and tells them the myths, the legends and the history. Most of the ghats are ‘bathing ghats’ but two are ‘burning ghats’, where bodies are burnt. You see all this in the book, but one of the best things about it is the way different viewpoints are presented: here the boatman, a poor man, argues with the uncle, a holy man.
We learn about the traditional silk industry, for instance, and the even more traditional courtesans, and much, much else.
I can think of no better introduction to the Eternal City. After reading this – and read it twice, it is ultra-easy-reading! – everything will seem familiar to you the moment you arrive. And that is wonderful – like reading a book set in the Middle Ages then having a time machine to take you there to experience it for yourself! But will it last? Yes, if it is left up to the people of India, but outsiders might destroy it – the Emperor Aurangzeb, a fanatical muslim, came close to doing so once (the story is in this book), and look what the Chinese are doing virtually unopposed in Tibet. They must never be allowed to press down into India.
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Tags: India, Indian comics, Kashi, Varanasi
Categories : Book Reviews, Non-Fiction (Hinduism and Yoga)
SPEAKING OF SIVA is a book of vacanas, religious lyrics written in Kanada free verse by medieval Virasaivas. As the translator, A.K.Ramanujan, says, “They all speak of Siva and speak to Siva: hence the title.”
Kanada is a Dravidian language spoken today by about twenty million people in the South Indian state of Mysore. The vacana poetry, written between the 10th and 12th, centuries represented a breaking away from the rigidity of classical Sanscrit tradition. It is spontaneous free verse written by ordinary men or women – yes, women – of various castes, some even outcaste, some illiterate.
Their leader was Basavanna, whose poems exemplify both the protesting (“protestant”) stance of the movement and its bhakti devotion to one god, in this case Siva. A perfect example, perfectly translated, is:
will make temples for Siva.
What shall I,
a poor man,
My legs are pillars,
the body the shrine,
the head a cupola
Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers,
things standing shall fall,
but the moving ever shall stay.
The second poet represented in this collection is Dasimayya. Whereas Basavanna always addresses Siva “O lord of the meeting rivers”, Dasimayya calls him “Ramanatha”. When he says that to the true Virasaiva
his front yard
is the true Benares,
we hear again the voice of the best of the Old Testament prophets, the truly spiritual man.
But for me the star of the movement, and of this collection, is Mahadeviyakka (you see the address of this website? – and that is why I have made this post sticky). She was initiated into the worship of Siva at the age of ten and from then on considered herself his bride; however, she was a very beautiful girl and men clamoured for her hand in marriage. When the king spotted her, her fate was sealed, and she became one of his wives. Eventually, though, she ran away from the palace (probably to the King’s great relief!) throwing off, according to legend, not just marriage but all the conventions (including her clothes) and spent the rest of her life as an itinerant poet and ascetic.
You can confiscate
money in hand;
can you confiscate
the body’s glory?
Or peel away every strip
but can you peel
the Nothing, the Nakedness
that covers and veils?
To the shameless girl
wearing the White Jasmine Lord’s
light of morning,
you fool, where’s the need for cover and jewel?
Or here is another favourite of mine by Mahadeviyakka:
who strips a tree of leaf
once the fruit is plucked?
who lies with the woman
you have left?
who ploughs the land
you have abandoned?
After this body has known my lord
who cares if it feeds
or soaks up water?
You can find more perfect translations of her poems and those other great Virasaiva poets in this book by A. K. Ramanujan (available from The Book Depository, my favourite on-line bookstore).
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Tags: India, Mahdeviyakka, Saivism, Siva
Categories : Book Reviews, Non-Fiction (Hinduism and Yoga), Non-Fiction (Religion and Philosophy), Poets and Poetry