Every South Indian bronze of the goddess, whether of Parvati, Lakshmi, or Sita, has one hand raised to hold a flower while the other is held alongside the body with fingers extended and pointing downwards. While we may stand casually at ease with one arm extended, none of us extends our fingers in such a manner. The sculptural convention of elongated arms with fingers extended so as to reach down the knees is not solely attributable to artistic stylization. It is explained in a large measure by the tradition of Tadasana in which the fingers are extended.
Then there is the simple posture of sitting cross-legged.
Why do most yogis sit cross-legged? Some believe that the answer lies simply in the fact that the yogic system was created thousands of years ago, mostly in a country where people were used to sitting on cushions on the floor. But trust yoga to have a practical and useful reason behind each characteristic. Indeed all of the traditional writings on Yoga stress the importance of sitting, with the spine in as erect a position as possible. Patanjali said:
'Sitting is to be steady and pleasurable. This is done by loosening of effort and by thinking on the endless (infinity).'
From the purely metaphysical point of view there is yet another and important reason to sit cross legged. Prana the vital air which circulates in us, flows round the body and tends to escape at the fingers and feet. If the hands and legs are crossed or folded, especially as in the lotus seat (padmasana), then a "closed circuit" of energy is formed, minimizing the leak of energy by continually feeding it back into the body.
The Padmasana is one of the most popular postures in which deities are shown engaged. Nearly always such an image is neither athletic nor warrior, but the dispassionate ascetic who has always been held in the highest esteem (like the Buddha). It expresses not the muscular physical form, but the serenity of meditative state. It stands for an ideal state which did and does exist in reality in the practice of yoga. In padmasana the legs are crossed and placed high upon the thighs with soles turned up. In addition to meditation this posture is also used by gods and enlightened beings for preaching the finest example of which is the Buddha image from Sarnath, where he is shown still half-absorbed in the bliss of the meditative state, from which he has awakened to preach.
The seated figure in the pose of yogic meditation was adopted by the various religions of India without being restricted to one or other faith. The Buddha, the Jina (Jain), the Hindu God Shiva, the goddess Lakshmi when venerated by elephants, the goddess Parvati and also several other figures of saints and teachers, all assume this classic posture.
Another asana of interest from the point of view of art is the Vajrasana, the thunderbolt or the pelvic pose. In this posture one kneels down and then sits back on the heels. This form of sitting is very commonly used domestically in Japan. Apart from being very suitable for meditation, this stance is also excellent for digestion. As the ancient yogis put it, 'It increases the digestive fires.' Fittingly thus Samurai warriors from Japan are often depicted in this posture.
Vajrasana is an extremely useful and comfortable exercise and is yogically speaking very efficient. It provides a satisfactory answer for many people who would otherwise find themselves depressingly uncomfortable in the cross-legged postures. Most exercises performed in the lotus seat could just as appropriately be performed in Vajrasana.
Mention must be made here of the 'Parvatasana,' Parvata literally means a mountain. In this variation of Padmasana, the arms are stretched over the head with the fingers interlocked.
Intriguingly, the Laughing Buddha is often shown in this stance, albeit standing.
4. Pranayama or Breath-Control: Prana means breath, respiration, and in the broadest sense, all that is vital in life. It also connotes the soul as opposed to the body. Ayama means length, expansion, stretching or restraint. Pranayama thus means extension of breath and its control. Thus in Pranayama control is established over all the functions of breathing namely:
a). Inhalation (filling
up, Skt. Puraka)
b). Exhalation (emptying the lungs, Skt. Rechaka)
c). Retention or Holding the Breath: In this state there is no inhalation or exhalation (Skt. Kumbhaka)
Pranyama thus is the science of breath. It is the hub round which the wheel of life revolves. Warns the Hatha Yoga Pradipika: 'As lions, elephants and tigers are tamed very slowly and cautiously, so should prana be brought under control very slowly in gradation measured according to one's capacity and physical limitations. Otherwise it will kill the practitioner' (chapter II, verse 16).
A yogi measures his life not by the number of his days but by the number of his breaths. Therefore, he follows the proper rhythmic patterns of slow deep breathing. These rhythmic patterns strengthen the respiratory system, soothe the nervous system and reduce craving. As desires and craving diminish, the mind is set free and becomes a fit vehicle for concentration.
As fires blaze brightly when the covering of ash over it is scattered by wind, the divine fire within the body shines in all its majesty when the ashes of desire are scattered by the practice of Pranayama.
Shankaracharya gives the following metaphysical interpretation of Pranayama: 'Emptying the mind of the whole of its illusion is the true rechaka (exhalation). The realization that "I am Atman" (the infinite spirit) is the true puraka (inhalation). Finally the steady sustenance of the mind on this conviction is the true kumbhaka (retention). This is the true Pranayama.'
Prana the vital, dynamic air in our mortal bodies, is a part of the cosmic breath of the all-pervading infinite Universal Spirit (Parmatama). Pranayama attempts to harmonize the individual breath (pinda prana) with this cosmic breath (Brahmanda-prana).
It has been said by Kariba Ekken, a seventeenth century mystic:
'If you would foster a calm spirit, first regulate your breathing; for when that is under control, the heart will be at peace; but when breathing is spasmodic, then it will be troubled. Therefore, before attempting anything, first regulate your breathing on which your temper will be softened, your spirit calmed.' (Quoted by B K S Iyenger)
Human nature is like a chariot yoked to a team of powerful horses. One of them is prana (breath), the other is vasana (desire). The chariot moves in the direction of the more powerful animal. If breath prevails, the desires are controlled, the senses are held in check and the mind is stilled. If desire prevails, breath is in disarray and the mind is agitated and troubled. Therefore, the yogi masters the science of breath and by the regulation and control of breath, he controls the mind and stills its constant movement. Indeed in the practice of Pranayama, the eyes are kept shut to prevent the mind from wandering. Thus says the Hatha Yoga Pradipika: 'When the prana and the manas (mind) have been absorbed, an undefinable joy ensues.' (Chapter IV, verse 30)
Not surprisingly thus, the importance of Pranayama in Yogic thought provides a fundamental basis for the conception of the human figure in the canons of Indian art. Indian artists have over the centuries shaped the body as a disciplined one, a subtle body glowing radiant with the light of inner realization.
Stella Kramrisch puts it admirably:
'In Indian art the figures are, as it were, modeled by breath which dilates the chest and is felt to carry the pulse of life through the body to the tips of the fingers. This inner awareness was given permanent shape in art, for it was daily and repeatedly practiced and tested in the discipline of yoga. It was found that by the concentrated practice of controlled breathing, an inner lightness and warmth absorbed the heaviness of the physical body and dissolved in the weightless 'subtle body,' which was given concrete shape by art, in planes and lines of balanced stresses and continuous movement. This shape, inwardly realized by yoga, was made concrete in art.'
5. Pratyahara or Withdrawal of Senses from Objects: If a man's reason succumbs to the pull of his senses he is lost. On the other hand, if there is rhythmic control of breath, the senses instead of running after external objects of desire turn inwards, and man is set free from their tyranny. This is the fifth stage of yoga, namely Pratyahara, where the senses are brought under control. It requires complete detachment from the world around as also from the products of one's mind and senses because these too are external objects at least to the inner self. It is thus a difficult exercise.
6. Dharana or Concentration: An illuminating tale from the ancient epic Mahabharata provides an interesting illustration of this stage of yoga:
Once Dronacharya the venerable guru of the royal princes organized an archery contest to test his pupils' proficiency with the bow and arrow. Before they actually took a shot at the target (an eye of the bird perched on a tree), each of them was asked to describe what all was visible to them in their frame of view. Some of them mentioned the particulars of the tree, others described the bird while some others even waxed eloquent upon the picturesqueness of the whole scene. When it came to Arjuna's turn however, he informed Dronacharya that to him only the eye of the bird was visible and nothing else. Needless to say it was only Arjuna's arrow which found its mark.
When the body has been tempered by asanas, when the mind has been refined by the fire of Pranayama and when the senses have been brought under control by Pratyahara, the sadhaka (practitioner) reaches the sixth stage called dharana. Here he is concentrated wholly on a single point or on a task in which he is completely engrossed. The mind is to be stilled in order to achieve this state of complete absorption. Approached in this frame of mind, the task at hand is sure to be successfully accomplished.
7. Dhyana or Meditation: As water takes shape of its container, the mind when it contemplates an object is transformed into the shape of that object. The mind which thinks of the all-pervading divinity which it worships, is ultimately through long-continued devotion transformed into the likeness of that divinity.
When oil is poured from one vessel to another, one can observe the steady constant flow. When the flow of concentration (dharana) is uninterrupted, the resultant state that arises is dhyana (meditation). According to Iyenger, 'As the filament in an electric bulb glows and illumines when there is a regular uninterrupted current of electricity, the yogi's mind will be illuminated by dhyana. His body, breath, senses, mind, reason and ego are all integrated in the object of his contemplation.
Thus Buddha, when engaged deep in meditation during his search for Nirvana, is often depicted in a posture known as the 'Dhyana Mudra.'
8. Samadhi: Samadhi is the end of the sadhaka's quest. At the peak of his meditation, he passes into the state of samadhi, where his body and senses are at rest as if he is asleep, but his faculties of mind and reason are alert as if he is awake.
The sadhaka is tranquil in this state, and worships the formless infinite as that from which he came forth, as that in which he breathes, as that into which he will be dissolved. The soul within the heart is smaller than the smallest seed, yet greater than the expansive sky. It is into this that the practitioner enters.
It is that state of being when contemplation completely merges with the object it is contemplating, and all distinctions between 'the seer' and 'the seen' get eliminated. Comparing the experience of samadhi with other experiences, the sages say: 'Neti! Neti!' - 'It is not this!' The purport being that this state can only be expressed by profound silence. The yogi has departed from the material world and is merged in the Eternal. There is then no duality between the knower and the known, for they are merged like camphor and flame.
References and Further Reading
- Daljeet, Dr. Tantra: New Delhi, 1994.
- Dehejia, Vidya (Ed). Representing the Body (Gender Issues in Indian Art): New Delhi, 1999.
- Eliade, Mircea. Yoga Immortality and Freedom: Princeton, 1969.
- Hutchinson, Ronald. Yoga A Way of Life: London, 1974.
- Iyenger, B.K.S. The Concise Light on Yoga: London, 1983.
- Saraswati, S.K. A Survey of Indian Sculpture: New Delhi, 1975.
- Walker, Benjamin. Hindu World: New Delhi, 1983.
- Zimmer, Heinrich. The Art of Indian Asia (2 Vols): Delhi, 2001