Tuesday, 7 March 2017

THE YOGAPRADĪPA : A Premodern Jain ‘Light on Yoga’

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Three Jain Monks Discuss Scripture
India, Rajasthan, Marwar or Jaisalmer, mid-18th century.
Opaque watercolor heightened with gold on paper. Image size: 20.3 x 17.7 cm.
Private English Collection, 2010 (Sotheby’s New York, March 2017)

We have recently spent much of our time searching methodically for yoga texts in the Endangered Archive at the British Library. The Endangered Archive Programme offers grants to institutions for the preservation of archival material that is in danger of destruction, neglect or physical deterioration. Several Indian institutions have been successful in receiving these grants. This has enabled the conservation of valuable material from private collections, libraries and temples, while also making this material available to researchers and scholars worldwide.

One such example is the preservation of ancient palm leaf and paper manuscripts archived at the Chinmaya International Foundation in Kerala, India. It is said to hold 3,600 rare paper manuscripts and 200 palm-leaf manuscripts in its collection on a wide range of topics, dating back to the late 16th century. So far, 1472 manuscripts in their collection have been catalogued and digitised.

A manuscript entitled the Yogapradīpa (British Library, EAP729/1/2/660) caught our attention. This short work written in Sanskrit (Devanāgarī script) on eleven paper folios has been catalogued and described simply as a “text on Yoga philosophy.” No date or authorship has been attributed.

Authorship and Dating

In an attempt to identify this text, we consulted the New Catalogus Catalogorum of Madras University (2011 Vol. 22: 80-81), which indicates that there are four different works by the name Yogapradīpa.2 One of these, which is identified as a Jain work and has eight manuscripts reported in various catalogues, corresponds with the Yogapradīpa in the Endangered Archive. It is described more fully in the Descriptive Catalogue of the Amer Shastra Bhandar (Ed. Kasturchand Kaslival, 1949), which is a large Jain repository of manuscripts in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Kasturchand (1949: 118) notes that the author is unknown, the language is Sanskrit, the number of folios is seven, the topic is 'yogaśāstra' and the text is complete with 141 verses. The number of verses is particularly telling here, because the Yogapradīpa manuscript available on the Endangered Archive has 142 verses.

Further research led to the discovery of a printed edition (1960) of the Yogapradīpa in question at the Jain e-library, which is an enormously valuable online resource that has digitised many Jain books and catalogues, some of which are very rare. This published work, by Amṛtlāl Kālidās Kośī, contains a critical edition of the Yogapradīpa, which is based on four manuscripts and two earlier printed editions (publ. 1922 and 1911), with a Gujarati translation and commentary. Its readings are mostly good and we have used it to correct many of the scribal errors in the manuscript of the Endangered Archive.

The introduction to the published edition of the Yogapradīpa rightly notes that this text is cited, with attribution, in the Pañcaparameṣṭhīmantrarājadhyānamālā composed by Nemidāsa.3 The editor dates the Pañcaparameṣṭhīmantrarājadhyānamālā to 1709 CE (VS 1766).4 If this is correct, then the Yogapradīpa predates the eighteenth century. The author of the Yogapradīpa remains unknown.

We will now consider some of the content of this premodern Jain work, the ‘Light on Yoga’ (Yogapradīpa).

The Holy Place in the Body

The Yogapradīpa begins by criticising pilgrimage, which is somewhat surprising given that pilgrimage has been popular with Jains for centuries as it allows laypersons to combine religious practice with recreation. On the one hand, a Jain pilgrim is supposed to live like an ascetic but, on the other hand, the pilgrimage is a social event that may be organised by a wealthy patron who pays for lodgings, travel expenses and community feasts (Dundas 2002: 218-19). The Yogapradīpa argues that god and the Self (ātman), which reside in the body, cannot be seen by visiting holy places:
People desire a holy place [but] what's the point of holy places that cause anguish? The holy place of religion is situated in the body and it is considered superior to all pilgrimage sites.5 
The opening section of the text sometimes adopts a disparaging tone. For example:
Ignoramuses wander from place to place in order to see god. They do not see the god located in the body.6 
People notice a thief, when even a small thing is missing. Those idiots (i.e., pilgrims) do not [even] slightly see the Self, which steals everything.7 

The salient theme of the Yogapradīpa is to see the Self (ātman) in the body by means of meditation. The goal of this meditation is liberation and the text does not mention the attainment of any supernatural powers (siddhi).
Those desirous of liberation should meditate on the untainted Self alone, which is free from all bodily constituents and actions, and has the form of gnosis.8 
Yogins see the Self located inside the body, just as it is, by means of practising this meditation thus.9 

A Trans-sectarian Truth

Despite the criticism of pilgrims, the Yogapradīpa advocates the ecumenical idea that the Self is a trans-sectarian truth. The author states that the supreme Self (paramātman) is the lord of gods (deveśa), and asserts that the supreme Self underlies all religions regardless of the different names they call it:
This untainted [Lord] alone is perceived as Brahmā by Brahmins, Viṣṇu by mendicants in yellow robes and it is seen as Rudra by ascetics. Having been made Buddha by the Buddhists, this eternal [Lord] is the Lord of the Jinas praised by the Jains and it is called Śiva by the Kaulas. Just as a crystal has many forms and is [yet] free from any characteristics, so is this one [Lord] named variously by these six religions. Just as water has many forms according to the different colours of the world [around it], so [the Lord] is called many things according to the differences in [people's] dispositions. Just as the five sense objects are located in one place, [namely,] the body, so the lord should be known as the one god, who is aspectless, free from worldly connections, peaceful, omniscient, powerful and untainted.10 

Eight Auxiliaries (aṣṭāṅga) of Jain Yoga

The Yogapradīpa goes on to teach a yoga with eight auxiliaries (aṣṭāṅga), which are sequenced differently to the usual Aṣṭāṅga format as seen, for example, in Pātañjalayoga:
In this system, the wise should know the eight auxiliaries of yoga are Samyama, Niyama, Karaṇa as the third, Prāṇāyāma, Pratyāhāra, Samādhi, Dhāraṇā and Dhyāna. When this yoga is being practised with all of its auxiliaries, it results in liberation for the wise.11 
Minimal explanation is given of the first seven auxiliaries. 
Samyama is fivefold in this system. These vows are: non-violence, truthfulness, not-stealing, celibacy and non-attachment. Niyama is [also] fivefold; cleanliness, asceticism, contentment, self-study and remembering the deity. Furthermore, Karaṇa is yogic posture (āsana). Prāṇāyāma is the steadiness (sthairya) of the in- and out-breaths. Pratyāhāra is the removal of sense objects and focusing the senses. Samādhi is the contemplation (cintana) of the meaning of statements which destroy worldly life. Dhāraṇā is harnessing the mind on a meditation object in order to bring about stability. If one meditates on a coarse, subtle, formed or formless [concept], the mind becomes steady when it is united with one of these concepts (pratyaya). Yoga is thus, along with its eight auxiliaries, beginning with Saṃyama.12 
The defining of Karaṇa as posture may have been inspired by the notion of Karaṇa in earlier Śaiva works, such as the Mataṅgapārameśvaratantra, in which it refers specifically to the position of the hands, head, eyes, jaw, etc., in a seated yogic posture. Although Prāṇāyāma, Dhāraṇā and Samādhi are included here, the Yogapradīpa does not describe them further nor does it mention any techniques. 

Samādhi as Contemplation versus No-Mind

The idea of Samādhi as contemplation in the Aṣṭāṅga system above is somewhat at odds with teachings on the no-mind state of meditative absorption elsewhere in the text. The Yogapradīpa uses no-mind terminology, such as unmanībhāva, sahaja and laya, which was introduced into the Jain tradition by Hemacandra in his Yogaśāstra (12th c.). Hemacandra borrowed it directly from a Śaiva text called the Amanaska (11th c.). It is possible that the Yogapradīpa’s teachings on the no-mind state were inspired by Hemacandra. However, the fact that Samādhi is not defined as the no-mind state in this Aṣṭāṅga system suggests that this system was borrowed from a different source.

The unusual order of the eight auxiliaries and the odd definition of Samādhi indicate that the Aṣṭāṅga format has been rather awkwardly inserted into this text, which only emphasises  Dhyāna. In particular, it teaches śukladhyāna (pure meditation) for seeing the Self (svātman). The term śukladhyāna is  associated with Jaina meditative practice in canonical texts, such as the Uttarajjhāyāṇa (chapter 29) and Tattvārthasūtra, and post-canonical ones, such as Śubhacandra's Jñānārṇava and Hemacandra's Yogaśāstra.

Apart from śukladhyāna, the Yogapradīpa contains other terms that clearly identify it as a Jain text, such as the mention of the three jewels (ratnatraya), which are given as knowledge (jñāna), faith (darśana) and conduct (caritra), the eight types of karma (aṣṭakarma) and the Jain saint Pārśvaprabhu (also known as Pārśvanātha). Nonetheless, the scarcity of Jain doctrine in the Yogapradīpa suggests that it was intended to appeal to yoga practitioners of various sectarian affiliations, which is somewhat further implied by its trans-sectarian view of the Self.

As far as we are aware, no English translation of the Yogapradīpa is currently available. It would make a welcome addition to scholarly literature on Jain Yoga as well as provide enriching material for Yoga practitioners. So, we do hope to produce a critical edition and translation of this text at some future date.

Yogapradīpa (British Library EAP729/1/2/660: f. 1)
CC 4.0. CC-BY-ND-NC. Sourced and preserved at Chinmaya International Foundation.


1 We would like to thank Giles Hooper, Vina Shah, Tim Lubin, Ulrich Timme Kragh, Dominik Wujastyk and Paul Dundas for answering our questions on specific matters to do with this blogpost.

2 The first is a work on Āyurveda and the second is a text otherwise called the Vivekamārtaṇḍa, a 12th-13th century work that teaches a yoga with six auxiliaries and some Haṭhayoga techniques. It is unlikely that the Vivekamārtaṇḍa was ever widely referred to as the Yogapradīpa, because only one of its manuscripts is reported in catalogues as having the name Yogapradīpa. The New Catalogus Catalogorum identifies the third and fourth Yogapradīpas as works on Jainism. The third is more commonly known as Śubhacandra's Jñānārṇava, which is a large work on yoga with forty-two chapters, composed probably in the 11th century. There are at least five manuscripts reported in catalogues with the name Yogapradīpa and the author Śubhacandra (Kaivalyadhama 2005: 244-45). The confusion over the names Jñānārṇava and Yogapradīpa appears to derive from the colophons of the Jñānārṇava. In the critical edition of the Jñānārṇava (1977: 85) the colophons have the format iti jñānārṇave yogapradīpādhikāre [...]prakaraṇam (i.e., 'here ends the chapter on [...] in the Jñānārṇava, which has the aim of illuminating yoga'). Perhaps, in the manuscripts reported as having the title Yogapradīpa and the author Śubhacandra, the word adhikāre was omitted in the colophons, which confused the cataloguers. It is also possible that jñānārṇave was omitted.

3 See the Introduction (p. 13) of the Pañcaparameṣṭhīmantrarājadhyānamālā, ed. Bhadraṅkaravijay and Amṛtalāl Kālidās Dośī. Mumbaī: Jaina Sāhitya Vikāsa Maṇḍala, 1971. We would like to thank Vina Shah for her invaluable help in reading the Gujarati introductions of the Yogapradīpa and the Pañcaparameṣṭhīmantrarājadhyānamālā.

4 Paul Dundas believes that this date of Nemidāsa is plausible; “I tracked down in [Desai and Kothari's Jain Gurjar Kavīo] Vol 5, 1988, pp. 231-32 an entry for Nemidās Śrāvak, the author of the Pañcaparameṣṭhīmantrarājadhyānamālā, where amongst other information, including the fact that he was a pupil of Jñanavimalasūri, the vs 1776 dating is given. Probably this simply derives from the first edition, but the date is perfectly plausible. There was a Tapā Gaccha monk called Jñānavimalasūri who lived in the middle of the vs 18th c. who seems to fit the bill for a relationship with Nemidās, and while it might at earlier times have been improbable for a monk to teach a layman and write a commentary on his work, by this late time I suspect we're dealing with a representative of the domesticated type of renunciant called yati, interested in mantra, tantra and vernacular composition rather than older-style Sanskrit- and Prakrit- based śāstra (this is a a broad generalisation, of course).” (p.c. 6.3.2017)

5 Yogapradīpa 3 (puruṣās tīrtham icchanti kiṃ tīrthaiḥ kleśakāraṇaiḥ | dharmatīrthaṃ śarīrasthaṃ sarvatīrthādhikaṃ matam ||3|| 3b tīrthaiḥ ] Ed. :  tirthaiḥ Codex).

6 Yogapradīpa 10 (sthāne sthāne bhramantīha devadarśanahetave | śarīrasthaṃ na paśyanti devam ajñānabuddhayaḥ).

7 Yogapradīpa 6 (lokair vilokyate cauro gate svalpe 'pi vastuni | sarvasvaharam ātmānaṃ manāk paśyanti no jaḍāḥ).

8 Yogapradīpa 11 (sarvadhātuvinirmukto jñānarūpo nirañjanaḥ | ātmaiva karmanirmukto dhyātavyo mokṣakāṅkṣibhiḥ).

9 Yogapradīpa 16 (evam abhyāsayogena dhyānenānena yogibhiḥ | śarīrāntaḥsthitaḥ svātmā yathāvastho [']valokyate).

10 Yogapradīpa 32 - 37 (brāhmaṇair lakṣyate brahmā viṣṇuḥ pītāmbarais tathā | rudras tapasvibhir dṛṣṭa eṣa eva nirañjanaḥ ||32||
jinendro jalpyate jainair buddhaḥ kṛtvā sa saugataiḥ | kaulikaiḥ kola ākhyātaḥ sa evāyaṃ sanātanaḥ ||33||
sphaṭiko bahurūpaḥ syād yathaivopādhivarjitaḥ | sa tathā darśanaiḥ ṣaḍbhiḥ khyāta eko 'py anekadhā ||34||
yathāpy anekarūpaṃ syāj jalaṃ bhūvarṇabhedataḥ | tathā bhāvavibhedena nānārūpaḥ sa gīyate ||35||
bhāvabhedān na gacchanti darśanāny ekavartmanā | ekatrāpi sthitāḥ kāye pañcaite viṣayā yathā ||36||
niṣkalo nirmamaḥ śāntaḥ sarvajñaḥ sukhadaḥ prabhuḥ | sa eva bhagavān eko devo jñeyo nirañjanaḥ ||37||
36a gacchanti ] Ed. : ma sthanti Codex. 36c kāye ] Ed. : kārye Codex).

11 Yogapradīpa 50 - 51 (saṃyamo niyamaś caiva karaṇaṃ ca tṛtīyakam | prāṇāyāmapratyāhārau samādhir dhāraṇā tathā ||50||
dhyānaṃ cetīha yogasya jñeyam aṣṭāṅgakaṃ budhaiḥ | pūrṇāṅgaṃ kriyamāṇas tu muktaye syād asau satām ||51||
50c pratyāhārau ] Ed. pratyahārā Codex. 51c pūrṇāṅgaṃ ] Ed. : pūrṇāṅga Codex).

12 Yogapradīpa 134 - 139 (ahiṃsā satyam asteyaṃ brahmacaryam asaṅgataḥ | ity etāni vratāny atra saṁyamaḥ pañcadhā smṛtaḥ ||134|| śaucaṃ tapaś ca santoṣaḥ svādhyāyo devatāsmṛtiḥ | niyamaḥ pañcadhā jñeyaḥ karaṇaṃ punar āsanam ||135||
svāsapraśvāsayoḥ sthairyaṃ prāṇāyāmo bhavet punaḥ | pratyāhāro viṣayadhvaṃsa indriyāṇāṃ samāhitam ||136||
samādhir bhavahantṛṇāṃ vākyānām arthacintanam | sthairyahetor bhaved dhyeye dhāraṇā cittayojanā ||137||
sthūle vā yadi vā sūkṣme sākāre ca nirākṛtau | dhyānaṃ dhyāyet sthiraṃ cittaṃ ekapratyayasaṅgate ||138||
evaṃ yogo bhaved aṅgair aṣṭadhā saṃyamādibhiḥ ||139ab||
137c dhyeye ] conj. : dhyeyo ] Codex, Ed. aṅgair ] conj. : yogair Ed.). It appears that all manuscripts have the reading evaṃ yogo bhaved yogair. It is possible the author may have understood yoga and aṅga as synonyms. However, I (Birch) am not aware of a precedent for this. I have emended the text simply because I cannot see how yogaiḥ could be understood other than as referring to the auxiliaries.

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Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Mewar Ramayana: Illustrated and Digitised


The Jagat Singh Rāmāyāṇa
British Library, Add. MS 15297(2) ff.87v (text) and 88r (picture)

Rama's brother Satrughna is returning with his attendants to Ayodhya from his kingdom of Madhu for the first time in twelve years.
He visits Valmiki's hermitage where he hears Lava and Kusa (the twin sons of Sita and Rama) singing the story of Rama. 

One of the remarkable initiatives underway at the British Library is the digitisation of their special collection through the project Turning the Pages™, which aims to make available some of the rare and extraordinarily valuable books usually reserved for viewing by conservation specialists and researchers.

One such example is a richly illustrated manuscript of the Rāmāyāṇa, an epic Sanskrit tale, commissioned in 1649 CE by Maharana Jagat Singh (1628 - 1652 CE), the ruler of Mewar, now part of Rajasthan. This manuscript, which has over 400 paintings by three different studio masters, was originally divided into seven volumes. The British Library currently houses four complete volumes and one partial volume in their collection, while the remaining two are held in collections in India.

Turning the Pages provides an exceptional platform for closely browsing these ornamented folios along with the Sanskrit text. Each page contains an audio and written description of the scene and a contextual summary of the story in English. Those familiar with this ancient epic tale know that it tells the story of the prince Rāma and the rescue of his wife Sītā after her abduction by the demon king Rāvaṇa. 

Selected folios made available by the British Library using Turning the Pages can be viewed here:

The Jagat Singh Rāmāyāṇa 
(also known as The Mewar Rāmāyāṇa)

The British Library digital collection has also made available other spectacular treasures such as:
The world's earliest, dated, printed book: Diamond Sutra (China, 800 CE)
The earliest near-complete copy of the Bible: Codex Sinaiticus (the oldest surviving complete copy of the New Testament; the manuscript dates from around the mid-fourth century CE). 
Codex Arundel written and drawn by Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519 CE)
Mozart's Musical Diary in Mozart's own hand. 
Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures Under Ground (November 1864) 

Below are a few of my favourite folios from The Mewar Rāmāyāṇa.

The Jagat Singh Rāmāyāṇa
British Library, Add. MS 15297(1) ff. 99v (text) and 100r (picture)

Hanuman has flown to the Himalaya Mountains to gather medicinal herbs to cure Rama and Laksmana.

The Jagat Singh Rāmāyāṇa
British Library, Add. MS 15296 (2) ff. 48v (text) and 49r (picture)

Sugriva has been brought to his senses and has come with his court to Rama's cave on the Prasravana mountain.

Rama, Laksmana and Sugriva are seated on a rocky eminence of pinky brown, with a jade background, with other monkeys below them.

The Jagat Singh Rāmāyāṇa
British Library, Add. MS 15296(1) ff. 110v (text) and 111r (picture)

Rama points out beauties of the Citrakuta mountain to Sita.
A group of ascetics pray, meditate and bath along the Mandakini river.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

The Dharmaputrikā and the dangers of excessive practice.

MS Indic δ 16 (viii), Folio 395 v.
London Wellcome

Is it possible to get sick from excessive practice? They thought so in the 11th century.

Dr Christèle Barois (AyurYog Project, University of Vienna) is making some very exciting contributions to our understanding of the relationship between Yoga and Ayurveda through her research of the Dharmaputrikā, an c. 11th century Sanskrit text:

The Dharmaputrikā, which is a systematic exposé on yoga, provides us with new elements concerning the relationship between yoga and āyurveda in medieval India, as it fully integrates medical knowledge and practices into the yogic process it describes. Thus, the Dharmaputrikā sheds light on the appropriation of some aspects of classical Indian medicine by yogins towards the end of the first millenium. This remarkable feature is manifest in chapter 4, which mentions the appearance of diseases due to excessive practice (atyabhyāsa) in the course of the conquest of the five bodily winds (pañcajaya), and in chapter 10, which describes the medical treatment (cikitsā) of diseases that arise from an imbalance of humors caused by incorrect breathing practices.
A full translation and critical edition of the Dharmaputrikā is a much anticipated output of the AyurYog Project in coming years. 

Dr Barois offers her translation of the āsana section of this text in her latest blogpost:
Eight Yoga Postures in the Dharmaputrikā

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Women's March

Three ladies visit a Yoginī
Provincial Mughal, India, 18th century (20 x 14cm)

#WomensMarch #nonviolence #ahimsa

Friday, 13 January 2017

Recipes for Immortality

and the intoxicating Alchemy of South and Inner Asia

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Samples of mercury as an elixir in Tibetan traditions.

In recent times, technology giants such as Google have enthusiastically funded research aimed specifically at harnessing technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls ageing and lifespan. It is their hope to develop interventions that may assist people ‘to lead longer and healthier lives’. However, the ability to live indefinitely, or at least improve the quality and length of life, has been a human fascination over the millennia. Long before digital experts grappled with the idea of e-immortality and the possibility of living eternally through online identities, human cultures have attempted to transcend the inevitability of entropy and death.

In October 2016, a gathering at the University of Vienna became a cauldron of ideas and lively discussions aimed at exploring longevity practices, treatment techniques and formulations. As part of the ERC-funded AyurYog Project, Dr Dagmar Wujastyk (University of Vienna) and her team hosted an extraordinary two-day workshop of international scholars to discuss (and experiment with) concepts of Rejuvenation, Longevity and Immortality that have been documented in the premodern literature of South and Inner Asia.

Dr Wujastyk opened the discussions with her explanation of rasāyana in Sanskrit medical and alchemical literature. As one of eight subject areas of Indian medicine (āyurveda), the doctrine of rasāyana is generally concerned with:
“preserving youthful vigour, promoting longevity, mental power and strength, and eliminating disease”.
However, the term rasāyana refers not only to medicines and substances, but also to the methodology of rasāyana therapy. In addition to reading Sanskrit passages, Dr Wujastyk provided the audience with the opportunity to taste medicines based on recipes found in the oldest treatise known on Āyurveda, the Carakasaṃhitā (circa. 1st century C.E.). We tried āmalaka (Indian gooseberry) as a candy, which aids digestion, and brahmarasāyana, a sticky black paste that is consumed for rejuvenation purposes. No one hesitated!

Watch Dr Wujastyk's presentation here.

Brahmarasāyana - a sticky black paste that is consumed for rejuvenation purposes.

The conference surveyed knowledge across the Indian sub-continent, from northern Pakistan and Tibet to southern Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. Diverse concepts of longevity and practices aimed at immortality where examined. Overall, the conference programme successfully engaged scholars and enthusiasts by challenging their views through experimentation, discussion and new research findings.

PhD candidate Ilona Kedzia (Jagiellonian University) examined techniques for mastering deathlessness in Tamil Siddha literature. After describing a largely unedited corpus of texts, she focused on recipes for drugs used in kāyakaṟpam (Sanskrit: kāyakalpam), a therapy designed for prolonging life. A striking example was the consumption of urine ideally captured from a ‘young boy fed with sweets’. The urine is boiled with slaked lime and purified for three days before forming the substance known as amuri, which is consumed over a period of 40 days to strengthen the body, remove phlegm and ultimately achieve immortality (Pulastyar Nāṉakaṟpam 222: 72-3). Ms Kedzia preliminary anthropological research reveals that many of these methods of preparation and consumption are still used today.

Dr Claudia Preckel (Ruhr-University Bochum), a specialist in Unani medicine (Ṭibb-e yūnānī), described some of the sophisticated elixirs of the body in Arabic sources. She explained that although many of the ideas originate from Greek medical works, the formulations and practices were further developed in Arabic, Persian and South Asian (Muslim) literature. In her analysis, Dr Preckel noted the linguistic connections (and some disconnections) in terminology as concepts were translated from Greek and Latin to Arabic, Persian and Urdu, and later intermingled with Indian sub-continents medical concepts such as rasa.

Dr Francis Zimmermann (EHESS) brought us closer to the present day with his talk on rasāyana in the modern market place. The industrial-scale production of rejuvenation medicines in India has followed from the national standardisation of Āyurvedic ingredients and recipes in the Ayurvedic Formulary of India (published in 1978), and the commercial success of companies such as Himalayan Wellness (formerly The Himalayan Drug Co.). Dr Zimmermann highlighted the inspiration that Sanskrit literature is offering these companies in their drive for scientific innovation in the development of proprietary medicines. The database of traditional knowledge has become a valuable resource used in litigation by the Indian government when battling US (and other international) companies for their misappropriation of medicinal knowledge in the form of patents, proprietary rights and commercial variants.

Interestingly, Dr Zimmermann’s research has also identified the change in audience for such formulations. Ancient recipes that were traditionally aimed at maintaining the virility of young men have been re-packaged and marketed to the growing number of appearance and health-conscious women of India. Pharmaceutical companies are exploiting a cultural shift in a female generation who are vulnerable to new social views about ageing and sexual dysfunction. This is generating a high demand for rejuvenation products for women.

Samples of Ayurvedic Medicines and rasāyana ingredients

A key term for age in medieval Sanskrit literature is vayas. Dr Christèle Barois (University of Vienna) examined its meaning in various contexts, including yoga, alchemy and some diagnostic procedures of Āyurveda. Her research revealed medieval understandings of age and attitudes towards it. One such example is the idea of vayas as the ‘useful’ lifespan of a person, which is said to be only 20 to 30 years, yet may be extended to 100 years by specific Āyurvedic treatments.

Some of the most fascinating claims for life extension can be found in the textual corpus on Yoga. Three specialists of this vast literature examined context-specific examples from the periods of classical, medieval and modern Yoga.

After many years of constructing critical editions of the Carakasaṃhitā and the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, Dr Philipp Maas (University of Leipzig) was able to dissect the meaning of rasāyana in classical Sāṅkhya-Yoga. With ease, Dr Maas took us back to the ancient past of 4th-century greater Magadha where Vedic Brahmanism and Śramaṇa religions were intermingling and producing new fusions of philosophical and religious ideas. He discussed the complexity of dealing with textual sources and, yet, convincingly argued for the distinct meaning of the term rasāyana in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra as “an elixir of longevity used in a different realm of the cosmos”, which appears unrelated to its meaning in classical Āyurveda. In fact, Dr Maas’s argument prompted some academics in the audience to reconsider Caraka’s definition of rasāyana, which led to a lively scholarly debate.

Dr Jason Birch (SOAS, University of London) examined concepts of rejuvenation and immortality in Medieval Yoga traditions. In particular, he focussed on the use of herbs, which are mainly credited with the attainment of special yogic powers (siddhis) and the healing of diseases. Dr Birch noted that it is the attainment of immortality that is more closely linked to the soteriological aim of liberation, rather than rejuvenation and longevity, which are only mentioned incidentally. The textual evidence suggests that immortality was understood literally, insofar as it was accepted that liberated Yogins could live forever in an ageless and disease-free body. Interestingly, Dr Birch mentioned several traveler's accounts, such as that of Marco Polo, which report of 'yogis' taking pills for longevity. Yet, he concluded by stating that herbs never appear in Yoga texts as an essential component for the practice of Yoga nor for achieving its ultimate goal.

Watch Dr Birch's presentation here.

In keeping with the theme of immortality, Dr Suzanne Newcombe (Inform, LSE) analysed modern accounts of longevity claims by Sadhus and other Yoga adepts, in particular, the practice of kāyakalpa. She identified the folk narrative that enables such stories to persist in India: 
“The immortality story is compelling and resonates across different concerns at every re-telling. Ambiguity of goals is part of its narrative strength - and experiential truths can feel more important - and be more transformative - than empirical confirmation.” 
Dr Newcombe observed that the ambiguity in meaning given to the term yoga has enabled it to remain relevant to diverse groups of people throughout the modern period and that this ambiguity has assisted in the “longevity” of Yoga. Her research also revealed that the emerging concepts of ‘human hibernation’ and ‘hypnotism’ in Western medical literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were used by some to describe the meditative attainments of Yogins and this resulted in a conflation of world views.

Watch Dr Newcombe's presentation here.

The University's chemistry lab for the Alchemical demonstration.

On the final day of the conference, the University’s chemistry lab was turned into an alchemical foundry for ancient Sanskrit recipes. Initially, academics more familiar with comforts of lecture halls showed signs of hesitation in this sterile environment. However, the interactive nature of the experiments conducted by the alchemical specialist Andrew Mason, broke down more than materials. Mr Mason dissolved barriers of communication across disciplines and subject matter. Indologists were bubbling with enthusiasm as they bumped shoulders with chemistry professors and medical students. Everyone was keen to glimpse the congealing of miraculous substances such as mercury. This interdisciplinary alchemical extraordinaire left the sweet taste of new knowledge tinged with the sour smell of cooked sulphur.

It seemed fitting that the final phase of our journey to eternity took place in the mountain peaks of Tibet.

Dr Cathy Cantwell (University of Oxford) shared her reflections on rasāyana, bcud len and related practices in Nyingma (rnying ma) tantric ritual. She explained that bcud len is understood as "imbibing the essence juice” and often takes the form of a subsidiary practice or pill in this tradition. It is equivalent to the Sanskrit term, rasāyana, “but in Tibetan Buddhist ritual manuals, both terms occur, apparently with slightly different connotations”. Dr Cantwell presented vividly coloured photographs from her fieldwork in Tibet. Her images brought to life the communal and ritualistic processes that surround the creation and distribution of these sacred compounds.

A sample of Tibetan precious pills and elixirs.

Packaged like parcels of hope in bright coloured silk wrappings, we were given the opportunity to examine samples of these compounds by Dr Barbara Gerke (University of Vienna), who presented an account of the use of mercury as a chülen (life giving substance) in Tibetan traditions. Dr Gerke contrasted the prolific use of mercury in recent times with the scarcity of references to it in pre-seventeenth century literature. The premodern context of mercury was mainly restricted to the attainment of supernatural powers by some Buddhist monks, whereas today it has become popular as an elixir for longevity among the lay community in Tibet and China.

As a practitioner and teacher of Yoga and a consumer of alternative well-being products, this conference made me question some of the assumptions underlying my own practice and lifestyle, particularly in my pursuit of health and transcendence through Yoga techniques and Āyurvedic medicines that are rooted in medieval world views quite different to my own. The conference exposed the complexity that arises not only from the collision of medieval traditions with the modern world, but also from the different cultural contexts, shifting demographics (e.g. age and gender) and the commercial pressures which are now shaping these disciplines. 

A true camaraderie formed as participants navigated this complexity by mapping the fault lines between Yoga’s transcendent and worldly aims, Āyurveda's therapeutic and purgative formulations, and the general divide between scientific and traditional knowledge. Yet, above all, what remained tangible was the perennial fascination humans have for overcoming or delaying the inevitability of death.

Purification of substances with Ghee.

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