Sūrya Namaskāra: Ancient Practice or Modern Invention? Controversy, Textual Evidence
Editor’s Note: The author is currently working on a two-part book series, entitled “The Ancient Roots of Sūrya Namaskāra and Vinyāsa-based Yoga”, where he would expand the themes covered in the current article series and is looking for funding of his book project. Towards this end, he has started a major INDIEGOGO grassroots campaign. For more information, please visit this link.
The current controversy over the ancient roots of Sūrya Namaskāra and Vinyāsa-based Yoga has called into question the very integrity of modern Yoga. In recent years, the antiquity of this Yoga has been routinely denied by Western scholars, who claim that it was fabricated from Western forms of exercise in the early 20th century.
This article series will demonstrate the evolution of Sūrya Namaskāra as a daily rite of Tantric Yoga practice from the 10th through the 19th centuries, based on my nine years of research into dozens of overlooked, un-published Tantric works, some of which are extant in my ‘Namaskāra Timeline’ video (below). This series will also contain multiple appendices with a considerable number of previously un-documented passages from the vast Tantric corpus, which has come down to us.
Layout of the Article
In order to chalk out the preliminary evidence for the authenticity of modern Vinyāsa-based Yoga as an ancient practice, I have planned following four articles:
Part I. Sūrya Namaskāra: Ancient Practice or Modern Invention? The Controversy and the Textual Evidence
Part II. ‘Danda Practice’- Case Study of Sūrya Namaskāra as an Ancient Yoga Practice
Part III. The Omission of Sūrya Namaskāra in the Post-Tantric Hathayoga Corpus
Part IV. The Revival of Sūrya Namaskāra by Krishnamacharya from his Overlooked List of Source Texts
Part I. Sūrya Namaskāra: Ancient Practice or Modern Invention? The Controversy and the Textual Evidence
mātram tu viśvamātā syād yogābhyāse |
āgatya dandavad bhūmau tusnim bhūtam-ivāsthitah ||
“In the Practice of Yoga wherein one moves towards the earth through a sequence of Danda (bending) postures, this Mother of the Universe should be engaged silently throughout…as if [She] is the one performing [the Movement].” –Sage Goraksha, Medieval teacher of Hatha Yoga [Goraksha-gutika, verse 38]
The debate over the origins of the Āsana-based, modern trans-global Yoga movement has reached a climax in the wake of the second ‘International Yoga Day’ event, held in 2016 on the summer solstice. Sponsored by the United Nations and the Indian Government, both the 2015 and 2016 celebrations saw the largest numbers of Yoga practitioners ever gathered together to practice on a single day (June 21st). For the inaugural International Yoga Day (IYD) in 2015, more than 190 countries sponsored Yoga events of their own, with Prime Minister Modi and other sponsors lauding this posture-based form Yoga as ‘the invaluable gift of India’s ancient tradition.’ In both events, more than 35,000 people, led by Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, gathered in New Delhi to practice a variety of postures included within the dynamic postural sequence known as Sūrya Namaskara.
This particular style of posture-based yoga is known as ‘Vinyāsa,’ or ‘Vinyāsa Flow’ and entails the sequencing (vinyāsa) of innumerable postures (Āsanas) often choreographed to a breath regulation practice (prāṇāyāma). Regularly practiced in some form by some 30+ million people in the world today, this style of Yoga can be traced to Tirumalai Krishnamacharya of the Mysore school of Yoga, who defined it as the core practice of ‘Hatha Yoga’, which he claimed to have revived from ancient texts known as ‘Yoga Shastras.’ Now, some eight decades later, India, backed by the United Nations, has strongly re-emphasized the antiquity of this practice, declaring that the Vinyāsa-based system celebrated by millions at both IYD events represents the ‘ancient’.
Indian tradition of Haṭha Yoga
Meanwhile, since 1996, a growing faction of Western ‘Hatha Yoga’ scholars as well as a new academic field known as ‘Modern Yoga Studies,’ have denied that the Namaskāra-based ‘Vinyāsa’ style of Yoga has ancient roots. They instead claim that it was fabricated by Krishnamacharya in the early 20th century, from Western forms of gymnastics, body building and wrestling. This position, first strongly asserted in the Yoga of the Mysore Palace by Walter Sjoman (1996), was expanded upon in The Yoga Body: Origins of Modern Postural Practice by Mark Singleton (2010). Both of these scholars, along with a growing number of those who support their argument, have repeatedly pointed to the fact that the Hathapradīpikā, a post 15th century compilation widely thought to be the locus classicus on ‘Hatha Yoga,’ is devoid of Sūrya Namaskāra and the postural sequencing which defines the Vinyāsa system allegedly revived by Krishnamacharya, and that as a result such practices must not have been intrinsic to the Indian tradition of ‘Hatha Yoga.’
Sjoman argues that the absence of Sūrya Namaskāra and Krishnamacharya’s Vinyāsa-based system of postural yoga in the Hathapradīpikā, is enough to doubt ‘the connection between the traditional sources and modern traditions’ of yoga. He concludes that “it is not possible to postulate a developed asana practice from that text [the HP] or other texts from which the Hatha Yoga tradition is assumed to have arisen.” This conclusion would be correct, if the ‘Hatha Yoga’ tradition did indeed derive from the Hathapradīpikā and other post-Tantric manuals of its kind. But it does not. As Part III of this series will show, the Hathapradīpikā represents a heterodox sub-branch of the Tantric tradition whose texts are comprised of Hatha Yoga practices redacted and distorted from scriptures of the Tantric tradition. Moreover, as I will show, the 19th century commentator of the Hathapradīpikā, eager to dismiss all Tantric practices which include ritualized, physical practices (kriyāsambamdhah) in this post-Tantric revisioning of Hatha Yoga, identifies the posture-based practice of ‘Sūrya Namaskāra’ as the central ‘preliminary’ Yoga rite (upavāsa, upacāra) to be eliminated.1
Singleton reiterates Sjoman’s skepticism, contesting that ‘Sūrya Namaskāra [prior to Krishnamacharya] was not yet considered part of yogāsana2 and moreover that—
“The emergence of modern postural yoga that we take for granted in modern yoga emphasizing poses vinyasa sequential movement…such as the Sun Salutation or Surya Namaskar are neither millennia-old nor rooted in ancient texts but a relatively recent vintage.” 3
This dubious argument has been echoed by other scholars as well –
“…Most Yoga students and teachers are not aware that the famous Surya Namaskar, and the variations out of the South Indian Schools of Hatha, never existed before the 20th century…Surya Namaskar is a very modern innovation or invention in a long history of evolving Yoga practices.” -John Mumford.
Amidst these claims, the 2016 celebration of IYD, the United Nations and the Government of India sponsored an eight day ‘Hatha Yoga’ program, conducted in 10 different languages, in which free instructions on the practice of Sūrya Namaskāra, were broadcasted around the world–
“Surya Kriya (i.e. Namaskāra), is of great antiquity… it is a breathing sequence which accompanies the physical postures. It develops mental clarity and focus, and removes weakness in the body” -Swami Sadhguru, spokesperson for the U.N.’s ‘Hatha Yoga’ Program.
Sūrya Namaskāra and Vinyāsa Yoga: India’s Ancient Heritage or a Modern Invention?
Despite denials by Western Scholars of Surya Namaskāra’s antiquity, India doesn’t seem to be listening. In preparation for the 2016 IYD event, Indian and UN officials again lauded the Vinyāsa- based style of Yoga as the ‘ancient heritage of Indian Yoga,’ while putting a particularly strong emphasis this year on the foundational place of Sūrya Namaskāra in Yoga. Indian Prime Minister Modi and other officials proudly announced a commemorative ‘Surya Namaskara Stamp Series,’ featuring what is known today as the twelve-part ‘classical’ form of the practice. Meanwhile, as recorded in thousands of photos taken for both IYD events, practitioners around the globe engaged in the poses shown in the stamp series, including hasta utthanāsana (‘pose with hands upraised’), adho-mukha-śvānasana (‘downward facing dog’), and bhujangāsana (‘cobra pose’). Other Namaskāra-based postures found in the Vinyāsa system of the Mysore school were practiced, including a variety of lunges and standing, transitional poses such as vīra-bhadrāsana.
Yet, just days after the 2016 event concluded, Jason Birch reminded us of the prevailing stance on Sūrya Namaskāra and postural Yoga held amongst Western scholars of Hatha Yoga and the burgeoning academic field of ‘Modern Yoga Studies’—4
“As Mark Singleton has argued, a fairly strenuous form of Sūryanamaskāra…of Prostrating oneself on the ground by adding dog poses and lunges, was combined with yoga in the twentieth century as part of an Indian nationalist attempt to promote physical culture…As far as we are aware, there is no evidence for a medieval Sūrya Namaskāra that resembles the modern one.”
Hence, we have two completely contradictory claims as to the history and heritage of ‘Hatha Yoga’. One side, represented by the United Nations, the Government of India, and the majority of Yoga practitioners in the world today identify the phrase ‘Hatha Yoga’ with a Vinyāsa-based postural practice believed to be ancient and indigenous to India. The other side, represented by factions of Western scholarship, asserts that Vinyāsa-based Yoga, including Sūrya Namskāra, was fabricated by Krishnamacharya in the early 20th century, and has nothing to do with the ‘classical’ tradition of Haṭha Yoga, represented by the Hathapradīpikā, and that this fabrication was influenced by the nationalistic fervor extant in 1930s India. If true, this would suggest that the majority of India has duped itself into believing that the Vinyāsa-based Yoga practices engaged by millions on IYD has ancient roots. On the other hand, perhaps a ‘Sleeping Giant’ has awoken to reclaim its own ancient Yoga heritage, one which has simply not yet been identified in source texts.
Only one of these contradicting claims can be correct.
Preserved or Invented? The Art of Textual Criticism in the search of Sūrya Namaskāra as an Ancient Yoga Practice
To determine whether or not Sūrya Namaskāra may have come down to us from overlooked sources, such as Krishnamacharya’s Tantras, we must first identify the defining features of the ‘Classical Surya Namaskāra’ sequence, as it is known today. The sequence of poses shown in the 2016 stamp series commemorating International Yoga Day (below, left) is exactly the same as that which is taught by the Bihar school (below, right).
A nearly identical version was taught by Krishnamacharya to Srivatsa Ramaswami, who in turn still teaches it today.5 The twelve sequential poses comprising the series are said to represent the months of the solar year. A sequence (vinyāsa) of specific seed mantras are applied in both schools6 to the poses – namely ‘HRĀM, HRĪM HRŪM, HRAIM, HRAUM, and HRAH.’ These are known as the ‘solar’ (saura) mantras, said to be particular to the worship of the sun (sūrya). Each pose in the series is led by its corresponding mantra, in numerical order (see chart above). The six mantras are each engaged twice, once for the descending phase of 6 postures, and again for the 6 poses comprising the ascending phase back to the original standing position (as depicted above). In addition, each pose and its corresponding seed mantra is correlated by Krishnamacharya and the Bihar school alike to twelve names for the sun.
The names respectively given by Krishnamacharya and the Bihar school to the same poses differ. For example, Bihar identifies the posture performed fifth and eighth in the series (above) as ‘Mountain Pose,’ while Krishnamacharya and his students referred to it as ‘Downward Facing Dog’ (adhomukha-śvānāsana); the posture performed first and last is called ‘Prostration Pose’ (pranāmāsana) by the Bihar school, whereas Krishnamacharya referred to it as ‘Standing Pose’ (samāsthitih).7 The fact that we do not have a consistent set of names for the twelve poses suggests that the naming of them may have occurred late in the evolution of the practice.8
According to Ramaswami, Krishnamarcharya referred to the entire sequence as a ‘Danda- samarpanam,’ an offering comprised of twelve ‘Danda’ postures, wherein the technical term danda, which literally means ‘stick’ or a straight line, refers to eight possible sections of the body that can be engaged in the act of bending. Ramaswami describes a typical Danda-samarpanam as ‘…starting from Tadasana,’ and traversing through asanas ‘like uttanasana, utkatasana, caturanga dandasana, urdhwa and adhomukha swanasana and returning to tadasana via utkatasana and uttanasana.’ However, while postural variations were allowed, the number of poses remained fixed in a twelve-part sequence.9
The Danda-samarpana rubric given by Krishnamacharya for the poses is reminiscent of the Namaskāra description given by D.C. Mujumdar in his Encyclopedia of Indian Physical Culture (1950). In his illustrated review of the Namaskāra sequence, Mujumdar refers to all postures in the Namaksāra sequence as ‘dands’ — the Hindi form of the Sanskrit word danda. Stating that dands come in a ‘number of varieties,’ Mujumdar presents dozens of figures engaging in ‘dands’ representing most of the poses found in the classic Namaskāra sequence without the names familiar to modern practitioners, such as ‘downward facing dog’ or ‘cobra pose’ (bhujangāsana). Numerous ‘dand’ variations are then detailed and depicted (below).10
After noting the influence of Sūrya Namaskāra on the evolution of Indian gymnastics, Mujumdar affirms that “Namaskāras were meant for worshipping the Sun…and is even today viewed as a religious practice.” He further relates that Sūrya Namaskāra had been particularly popular in Maharashtra, and experienced a resurgence there in the 17th century under Samartha Ramadas and his disciple, Shivaji, finally noting that the practice waned in the 19th century due to neglect.11
As we shall see, the details given and the allusions made by Mujumdar are readily supported by the textual record. Tantric Yoga was indeed regarded as a daily ‘religious practice,’12 as a process of transforming one’s egoic consciousness into that of the deity, in part through taking on postures led by Shiva or Vishnu’s ‘Power’ (śakti) in the form of the solar mantras, which lead the Namaskāra postures, in a process called samyoga, establishing an ‘intimate connection’ to the divine. The texts cited in my ‘Namaskāra Timeline’ video overwhelmingly demonstrate that the generic, collective term for all Namaskāra postures given in the Tantras was, in fact, ‘danda,’ whereas for over 1,000 years the preeminent epithet for the Yogic practice of Sūrya Namaskāra was Dandavat, literally ‘[a sequence] possessed of danda postures.’
Danda-based Namaskara Denied as an Ancient Practice by Modern Scholars
Mujumdar’s passage on the role of ‘dands’ in ‘Surya Namaskara’ is referenced by scholars such as Sjoman, Alter and Singleton, as evidence that Hindu nationalism and international physical culture shaped modern yoga, and that Surya Namaskāra was therefore invented in modernity. Sjoman (54) attributes Mujumdar’s danda exercises to a text on Indian gymnastics and wrestling written in 1896 (the Vyāma Dīpikā), claiming that this work was the “primary foundation for Krishnamacariar’s vinyāsa-s.”13 ‘Dands’, he opines, are merely ‘variations of push-ups,’ later ‘broken down’ into individual āsanas such as tāḍāsana, pādahastāsana, caturanga-dandāsana, and bhujangāsana.
Alter too attributes dands to the wrestling tradition, and defines the word itself as a ‘jack-knifing push up.’14 Singleton references Mujumdar’s passage in concluding that Surya Namaskāra is a “modern, physical culture–oriented rendition of the far more ancient practice of prostrating to the Sun.” Like Sjoman, he argues that the Namaskāra sequence is “nothing more than a particular arrangement of ‘dands,’ ‘reformulated’ as ancient āsanas by Krishnamacharya, and that the Sūrya Namaskāra thus represents a fusion of popular ‘indigenous’ aerobic exercises fused with āsana in order to “create a system of athletic yoga mostly unknown in India before the 1920s.”15 Only one pose in the Namaskāra sequence is given a proper name by Mujumdar. This is the pivotal 6th posture, identified as the ‘Sashtang Namaskara,’ or the ‘prostration [posture engaged] with eight parts of the body’, in which ‘the forehead, chest, the palms, two knees, and two toe parts’ are brought into contact with the earth.16
Singleton briefly mentions that this pose is “known in certain quarters” as astānga namaskāra, the name given to it in the 2016 stamp series (below). The ‘certain quarters’ to which he refers are not made clear. But Mujumdar makes the true origins of Sūrya Namaskāra clear enough by relating that the phrase ‘Sashtānga Namaskara’ (i.e. astānga namaskāra) is also the traditional name given to the Namaskāra practice itself. This together with his depiction of the Namaskāra sequence as a system of ‘dands’ or danda poses, represents a vital clue in discovering the ancient textual source of the practice – the medieval Tantric traditions. Appendix A provides a sample list of (largely un- published) Tantric texts teaching the Yogic practice of Namaskāra, replete with a series of ‘danda’ postures and referred to by Mujumdar’s epithet of ‘Sashtānga Namaskāra’- the ‘Sequence containing the ‘Eight Body-Part prostration Pose.’
Twenty-two years earlier, Balasahib Pratinidhi Pant, a Maharashtra Raja of the district of Aundh, published his ‘Ten-Point Way to Health (1928),’ a short treatise featuring ten of the ‘classic’ twelve poses of Sūrya Namaskāra later taught by Krishnamacharya and the Bihar School. They and Pant alike presented the ‘classic’ sequence as led by the solar seed mantras (HRĀM, HRĪM, HRŪM, HRAIM, HRAUM, and HRAH), doubled for the second set of six poses, as described above. Pratinidhi Pant’s postures are reminiscent of those later exhibited in Mujumdar’s Encyclopedia in1950 and of those celebrated in the commemorative Stamp Series issued by the Indian Government on the second International Day of Yoga, 2016. The Raja of Aundh tailors the language in his presentation of Sūrya Namaskāra to make it palatable to Western (and overwhelmingly Christian) audiences of the time. Therefore, it is not surprising that Pant omitted textual sources for the practice from his treatise.
Nonetheless, the version he presents is extremely close to that which is taught in many Tantric works composed throughout the Indian sub-continent throughout the previous ten centuries, culminating with the danda-based Namaskāra sequences extant in the Paraśurāmakalpasūtra, a work of the Traipurā Tantric lineage completed by Rāmyadeva in Maharashtra in 1829, only a century before the publication of Pratinidhi Pant’s writing.17 But the clearest evidence that the postural practice represented in Pratinidhi’s Ten-Point Way to Health was extracted from the daily pan-Tantric Yoga ritual is the vinyāsa of solar seed mantras that lead it. Indeed, this feature is ubiquitous to the Namaskāra Kriyā as taught in Tantric sources, and moreover is unique to the Tantric tradition, otherwise known to itself as the ‘Path of Mantras (mantramārga), for there is no instance outside of this tradition in which Sūrya Namaskāra is taught as a postural practice led by mantras.18 The mantra-led movement in Namaskāra practice is commonly referred to as the ‘placement of the limbs [of the body],’ (anga nyāsa), in which the solar seed mantras (‘HRĀM, HRĪM HRŪM, HRAIM, HRAUM, and HRAH.’), representing the embodied, sonic expressions of Śiva’s (or Visnu’s) divine Power (Śakti), are believed to lead one’s body through the sequence of poses.19
Sadly, the 1000 or so years of textual evidence supporting the claims made by Mujumdar and Pratinidhi has been overlooked or ignored by Western Scholars. In his work, The Yoga Body, Mark Singleton even suggests that Sūrya Namaskāra may have been invented by Patinidhi Pant, proclaiming that there is “no evidence that the Sūryanamaskāra sequence was practiced prior to the early 20th century.”20
As I will demonstrate in Part II of this series, there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary, extant in the overlooked corpus of Tantric literature long since available to scholars,21 spanning a period of over 1,000 years of Yoga history (see ‘Namaskāra Timeline’ video). This evidence demonstrates the antiquity and evolution of Sūrya Namaskāra as a daily Yoga practice (especially in the region of Maharashtra), as claimed by Pant, Mujumdar, Krishnamacharya (and his students), and the Bihar school. Unfortunately, Singleton and others seem to have overlooked the crucial evidence of ancient Yogic roots extant within a postural practice led by the solar seed mantras, a practice that by the late 14th century or so had become ubiquitous in the pan-Tantric Yogic rite known as the Namaskāra Vidhi – and especially in Maharashtra.
The Search for Classic Sūrya Namaskāra in Ancient Source Texts: What are we looking for?
Is there any sign in ancient texts of the ‘classic’ mantra-led Namaskāra sequence, as commonly taught by Pratinidhi, Krishnamacharya, the Bihar school, and portrayed by Mujumdar in his 1950 Encyclopedia? If so, is it considered a Yoga practice, as claimed by Krishnamacharya and the Bihar School? Are its postures ever referred to as dandas in ancient sources, namely or a series of ‘bending’ poses made by the body, as suggested by Ramaswami’s epithet of ‘Danda Samarpanam,’ and as claimed by Mujumdar and others? Does it contain a core, pivotal pose wherein ‘eight body parts’ come to touch the earth (Ashtānga Namaskāra)? Is this sequence led by a series of seed mantras, particularly the six ‘solar’ seed mantras, as commonly taught today?
If the answer is yes, we may conclude that the so-called ‘Classic’ version of Sūrya Namaskāra is indeed an ancient one, as proclaimed worldwide on International Yoga Day. To summarize, we are looking for a posture-based practice known by the epithet of ‘Namaskāra’ (or a synonymous term), extant in ancient texts and identified therein as a practice of Yoga, one which includes the following defining features –
- Twelve postures, based respectively on the twelve months of the solar year;
- The epithet of danda (bending pose) referring to the individual postures of the sequence, and/or ‘Dandavat’, an umbrella term for the sequence of Danda postures as a whole?
- Ashtānga Namaskāra, Mujumdar’s ‘eight-body part’ posture, is featured as the pivotal sixth pose; it is engaged upon the ground after a sequence of 5 descending poses, followed by 5 ascending postures ending with the practitioner coming back into a standing position (as exhibited, for example, in the 2016 stamp series)
- Six ‘Seed’ Mantras which respectively lead the twelve poses, particularly the following mantras associated with the sun – HRĀM, HRĪM HRŪM, HRAIM, HRAUM, followed by HRAH.
In fact, a Namaskāra practice featuring these core tenets is prescribed in innumerable source texts representing some 10 lineages found in three major branches of the medieval Tantric tradition, as depicted in my ‘Namaskāra Timeline,’ featured in this article. These lineages include the Śaiva-based ‘Path of Mantras’ (Mantramārga), the Goddess-based Kaula Tantras, and those of the Pāñcarātra, the Vaishnava-based movement of Tantrism to which Krishnamacharya’s lineage belongs. Among the earliest works to detail a postural Namaskāra practice are a group of Tantras belonging to the Śaiva Mantramārga, which served as the scriptural authority for a sect known as the Vīraśaivas (‘Warriors of Śiva’), who flourished (and still flourish today) in parts of Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Kerala, is the Vīraśaiva Tantra,22 comprising a corpus which dates to perhaps 1000 A.D., include the Amśuvati, Ajita, Dīpta, Kārana, Kāmika, Makuta, Vāthula and Candrajñāna Tantras.
All of these give detailed descriptions of a daily (nitya-) Yoga-based postural practice alternately called the Namaskāra Kriyā (Physical ‘Rite of Namaskāra’), the Namaskāra Vidhi (‘Namaskāra Sequence’), the Pranāma Kriyā (Physical ‘Rite of Prostration’), or the Pranāma Vidhi (‘Prostration Sequence’). In each case, the individual poses comprising the Namaskāra rite are referred to generically as Dandas, whereas the practitioner is called a Dandavat, one who takes on a series of Danda postures. Each of these Tantras presents a twelve-part sequence of Dandas identical or very similar to the ‘Soorya Namaskar’ outlined by Mujumdar and described as an ‘ancient’ practice in his Encyclopedia, published in 1950, a claim questioned by Singleton, as mentioned.23
One of the earliest exegetical works to detail the practice of Sūrya Namaskāra is the Kriyāsāra (‘Essence of Ritual Action’) of Nīlakanthaśivācārya, a legendary Vīraśaiva saint of Maharashtra or Karnataka, who composed his work sometime between 1350 and ca. 1450 A.D. some six centuries before Mujumdar’s work was published in Maharashtra in 1950.24
His Kriyāsāra passages contain some of the first evidence compiled by a human author presenting Namaskāra sequencing that we have inherited today. Citing from a number of the aforementioned Vīraśaiva Tantras, particularly the Amśuvati Tantra, he vindicates the claim made by India in support of International Yoga Day, that Sūrya Namaskāra is indeed an ancient practice of Yoga. For Nīlakantha gives us a clear look at what this Namaskāra sequence looked like in the medieval period, particularly in West and Southwest India. He refers to the Sūrya Namaskāra practice, as it is known to us today, by several epithets, including the Pranāma Vidhi, or ‘Ritual Sequence of Prostration,’25 which, he reports, includes a diversity of bodily postures called Namaskāra Mudrās, which are experienced collectively as the physical expression (pradarśya-) of a series of seed syllables representing the embodied manifestation (-angam) of Śiva’s Power (śakti).26
Dandavat Namaskara: Tantric Origins of Sūrya Namaskāra and Vinyasa-based tradition of Hatha Yoga
The critical epithet of ‘Dandavat’ is the most ubiquitous name applied to the Namaskāra sequence throughout all Tantric texts, and is found in nearly every Namaskāra passage, which I have thus far identified in the Tantras. So, while the rite in Tantric texts may be variously referred to as the Pranāma Vidhi, Namaskāra Vidhi, or Namaskāra Kriyā, it is the ever-present and defining term of Dandavat, which characterizes the standardized Namaskāra sequences taught in Tantric works, especially the ‘classic’ twelve-pose sequence, which has come down to us today. All of these works detail the Namaskāra rite as a daily practice of Yoga comprised of a Dandavat-based sequence of physical poses, led by the solar seed mantras.27
Dandavat is the most common name Nīlakantha and other Tantric commentators use for the Namaskāra sequence; a technical term, it refers to a collective sequence of postures ‘comprised of Dandas’ or bending shapes-
“Next, He [engages] the greatest instrument of Śiva, the Dandavat –the most desirable Ritual sequence (vidhih) of the God of all Gods — in which one [gradually] prostrates towards the ground.”
Here Nīlakantha gives us clear evidence that the postures of the Namaskāra sequence, long before they were given names familiar to us today, such as ‘plank pose (caturanga dandāsana)’ or ‘downward facing dog pose (adho-mukha-śvānāsana)’, they were generically referred to as ‘dandas,’ or a contiguous series of bending poses.
Each ‘Danda’ – or ‘Dand,’ as Mujumdar would refer to them some six centuries later — represented a posture performed with one or more bends simultaneously engaged in the body — at the waist, knees, ankles, elbows, neck, wrists, shoulders, fingers, and/or toes.28
Dandavat can also refer to the Yogī himself, namely one who engages a series of bending postures which are linked together—29
“A Dandavat is a person a Self-Mastery, a Lord of the Earth, a Protector…who is driven to swiftly prostrate towards the earth.”
He furthermore reveals that the continual sequence comprised of a Dandavat series of bending poses represents an act of Śiva moving through one’s body, one which is driven by ‘strength imbued with compassion’ (krpāvaśād), strength which is cultivated within the practitioner through the performance of this physically empowering practice.30
In Part II, I will complete my review of ‘Dandavat Namaskāra,’ and will thereafter delineate the role of Sūrya Namaskāra as a daily practice of Yoga in the Tantras, as taught in the Vīraśaiva Tantras (ca. 1000 A.D.) and summarized by Nīlakantha in his Kriyāsāra. Included will be an Appendix of Tantric works spanning 1000+ years of the Yoga tradition, which substantiate the Sūrya Namaskāra rite as a Yogic Practice. Part II will also give details about the three daily Namaskāra sequences taught in the Tantras, corresponding respectively to the three junctures (sandhyās) of the day – dawn, noon, and dusk, and sometimes midnight.31
Appendix A contains a sample list of Sanskrit (Tantric) passages referring to the Yogic rite of Sūrya Namaskāra by its core pose, the Ashtānga Namaskāra (or Ashtānga Pranāma), or as Mujumdar puts it in his Encyclopedia of Indian Culture (1950), ‘Sāshtānga Namaskāra,’- the ‘[Sequence] containing the ‘Eight Body-Part prostration Pose that are brought into contact with the earth. This evidence counters the claim made by Singleton that Sūrya Namaskāra as a dynamic physical practice comprised of postures called ‘dands’ (dandas) and led by a peak pose which engages ‘Eight Body Parts’ (sāshtānga-) was fabricated in the early 20th century by Pant and Krishnamacharya.
Read Appendix A here: Ashtānga Namaskāra: the Core Posture of Sūrya Namaskāra
1 upavāsādinā pittādy-utpatteh | kāya-kleśa-idhim kāyakleśakaram vidhim kriyām bahu-sūrya-namaskārādi-rūpām bahu-bhārodvahanādi-rūpām ca | tathā samuccaye | atra pratipadam varjayediti kriyāsambamdhah || 61 ||
2 Yoga Body, p. 180.
3 P. 284 of Yoga: the Art of Transformation
4 from ‘Textual Evidence for a Namaskara as an Āsana,’ featured in the Luminescent’ (online blog), posted days after the IYD event, June 2016; my emphasis in bol d font.
5See The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga by By Srivatsa Ramaswami. To peruse a video of Ramaswami teaching Krishnamacharya’s sequence, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTf1Qo7uFr4
6 It would be incorrect to say that the Namaskāra sequence taught to Ramaswami represents the ‘Mysore School,’ since Pattabhis Jois, an earlier student of Krishnamacharya’s who, to my knowledge, did not teach the classical version of the practice conveyed to Ramaswami later in Krishnamacharya’s life.
7 Also known as ‘mountain pose.’
8 Especially since Krishnamacharya and his students (particularly Iyengar) are responsible for naming many of the Āsanas practiced today.
9 The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga, pgs. 213-217.
10 Pgs. 461-471.
11 P. 453.
12 See, for example, the Paramānanda Tantra passage cited in the Paraśurāmakalpasūtra (footnote #16, below), wherein that Tantra identifies the postural ‘Danda-based’ Namaskāra practice as a form of daily
‘household worship (‘pūjā-grhād… pranamet dandavad’).
13 1996: pgs. 53-54.
14 1992a: 87-94.
15 Yoga Body, pgs. 205-206. In so doing, he also dismisses Ashtanga Vinyasa, the system of Yoga taught by Krishnamacharya’s student Pattabhis Jois, as “a powerful synthesis of āsanas and dands” inspired by national physical culture programs.
16 p. 456
17 Citing from the Paramānanda Tantra, Rāmyadeva gives several descriptions of the twelve-pose Namaskāra practice forming part of a daily Yoga sādhana extant in that Tantra, with details on the body parts involved with each posture in this dynamic sequence, including the pivotal ‘Dandavat’ pose known as Ashtānga Namaskāra, the same included in Pratinidhi’s 1928 booklet, Mujumdar’s 1950
Encyclopedia, and the 2016 Stamp Series –
paramānanda tantre- ‘pūjā-grhād bahirdevīm pranamet dandavad-bhuvi | mandale namanam naiva sāshtāngam dandavat caret || jānubhyām ca padābhyām ca mūrdhnā hastayugena ca | caturanga- pranāmo’yam mandale vihitah śive’ || iti || -Paraśūrāmakalpasūtra, lines 7713-7716.
18 Mantramārga is an umbrella epithet given in the Śaiva Tantras (and by Śaiva exegetes) to their tradition of Tantric Śaivism as a whole, regardless of lineage. In the Tantric ‘Path of Mantras,’ (Mantramārga) everything in the Universe, moving and non-moving, is generated by and forever infused with the Goddess Speech (Vāk), so that in the Mantramārga the term Yogin (Practitioner of Yoga) is synonymous with Mantrin (‘One Who Engages with Mantras’) -jñātenānena jñātam syād & vān-mayam sa-carācaram | mantrino mantra-mārga-sthā & yogino yoga māśritāh || -YuJaĀr 1.74.
19 The rite of Anga-nyāsa (‘placement of the limbs’ on the earth) is not to be confused with the rite of installing by hand the core retinue of a given deity’s seed mantras onto one’s body, often known as Śarira-nyāsa (‘placement on the body’). These are two of the three consecutive ‘Nyāsa’ or Mantra placement rites ubiquitously prescribed within the sixteen preliminary daily Yoga practices (upacāra, adhivāsa) prescribed in all of the Tantras (and gradually eliminated in the so-called post-Tantric ‘Hathayoga’ texts, along with all vinyāsa or mantra-led based postural Yoga; – see Haṭhapradīpikā 1.61, to be discussed in Part II). For daily Sun Salutation or worship, the Yogin engages the solar seed mantras, personifying the Śakti (‘Power’) of one’s Core Deity, for all three of the following Mantra placement rites, otherwise called Vinyāsas, or ‘sequences.’ The first is Kara-nyāsa (‘Hand Placement’), wherein the core six seed mantras are placed one at a time onto the fingers and palm of the right hand with the left). This is followed by Śarīra Nyāsa (‘Body Placement’), wherein the same set of six mantras are installed in due sequence (vinyāsa) onto pre-designated parts of the body, or the six chakras, respectively, in later Tantric texts. The final vinyāsa of Mantras in the daily preliminary Yoga rites of the Tantras is called Anga-nyāsa (‘placement of the limbs’ on the earth). Here, the now mantra-infused limbs of the body are engaged through a series of body-bending Danda poses comprising the Namaskāra sequence, with each pose respectively led by HRĀM, HRĪM, HRŪM, HRAIM, HRAUM, HRAH.
In his Kriyāsāra, Nīlakanthaśivācārya (introduced below) uses the phrase Anga-nyāsa as a double entendre, wherein anga- is commonly inferred to mean the mantras, or sonic ‘body parts’ of Śiva, Anga- nyāsa thus refers to the mantra-led placement of the limbs of the body in the Namaskāra vinyāsa sequence. This is confirmed by Nīlakantha, who tells us that in the rite of Anga-nyāsa, the body becomes a (sonic) instrument (karana) of Śakti; and moreover proclaims that the ‘Placement of Six body poses’
(shad-anga-nyāsa-mātram) is a sequence comprised of (six) Danda or Bending Postures (danda-nyāsa)—‘nyāsasyāpi krtsnasya karanā-śaktau danda-nyāsa -mātram shad-anga-nyāsa -mātram vā kuryāt’ |-Kriyāsāra, lines 8893-8894.
20 Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, pages 124, 180-181, 205-206.
21 The majority of texts referenced in this Article series were downloaded from the collection of Tantric ‘E- texts’ available at www.muktabodha.org. Others derived from my own transcriptions of manuscripts from the Nepalese ASHA library collection, and from manuscripts personally recovered in Kashmir in 2012.
22 The texts listed in this paragraph do not call themselves ‘Vīraśaiva’ Tantras. As Professor Sanderson has pointed out in his article ‘The Śaiva Literature’ (2014: 84), the scriptures referenced by Vīraśaiva authors are redacted versions of older Tantras (Āgamas) belonging to the Śaiva Siddhānta lineage. I am referring to them as Vīraśaiva Tantras only because they are among those which provide the core ritual material for the Vīraśaiva sect, as demonstrated in Nīlakantha’s Kriyāsāra.
23 An index of sample passages may be found at the end of this article.
24 The Kriyāsāra is repeatedly cited by Rhagavabhatta in his commentary on the Śāradā Tilaka Tantra, completed in 1493 A.D. Later citations of Nīlakantha’s work include Vedajñāna’s Dīkshādarśa (16th century), the Śrītattvacintāmani, completed in A.D. 1577; the Tārābhaktisudhārnava of Narasimha Thakkura, completed in A.D. 1668, and the Śāktapramoda of Rāja Devanandan Singh of Bihar, completed in 1889.
Since 1891, the three volumes of the Kriyāsāra have been cataloged in the library of the Mysore Palace along with the Śrītattvanidhi, a massive compendium of Tantric rituals composed by the Mysore Rāja Wodeyear – one which included the ‘Ritual of [Sūrya] Namaskāra.’ The Kriyāsāra thus would have been accessible to Krishnamacharya during his time in the Mysore Palace, when he was sponsored there by Wodeyear’s son and successor, especially since Krishnamacharya lists the Śrītattvanidhi as one of his sources (in the preface to his 1934 book, the Yoga Makaranda)
25 Kriyāsāra, line 11519.
26 ‘Yadvā āvahanādi-samskārāshtakam samuditam eva smrtvā pratyekam-arghyamātram datvā brahmanām-arghyavasāne kramena surabhi-padma-triśūla-makara-sragākhya-mudrāh pradarśyāngānām namaskāra-mudrām pradarśayet|’–Kriyāsāra, lines 10741-10745.
27 That is to say, varying levels of detail are provided from text to text. Tantric scriptures (āgamas, tantras), with the exception of the Vīraśaiva scriptures, tend to present only a terse outline on the prescribed rites of daily Yoga practice. On the other hand, it is the nature of exegetical works, such as the Kriyāsāra, to expound on these rites in greater detail.
28 The term danda literally means a ‘staff’ or a ‘stick,’ and is used here to refer to the any combination of straight lines (rekhāni) made by the jointed body in forming a given posture in the sequence. For example, the eight-body part pose (ashtānga namaskāra, #6 in the above image, contains 8 ‘dandas’ or straight lines made with different sections of the body.
29 samāgatya drutam vipram pranamya bhuvi dandavat | svāmin mātula-putro’yam raksitah prthivīpatih || -Kriyāsāra, lines 4815-4816.
30 kutra vā gata ityevam vicāro’bhūn-mahān-mama | bhavat-krpāvaśād-drasta ityuktvāyam mahīpatih |parisvajya dadau tasmai patān bhūsanamujvalam ||-Kriyāsāra, lines 4818-4819.
31 These include –
- The Standard Twelve Part (‘Classic’) Sequence (dawn sandhyā)
- Sixteen Poses Following the Syllables of a Vedic or Tantric Verse (noon sandhyā)
- The Anga-Pradakshina (‘Body Flow’) Sequence of spontaneous Body Mudrās, often described as a ‘Dance’ Vinyāsa or Vidhi (dusk sandhyā); this would become the source of the modern ‘Chandra Namaskāra’ variations.
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