The transmission of Tantra: an interview with Hareesh (Part 2 of 3)

PART TWO (see Part One here)

Ilya: We come to a very important point here -- in the beginning of a spiritual path, a disciple might not know what is best and it is the role of guru to decide and guide. Nowadays, the western world is a consumption world and westerners treat different practices likewise -- I don`t like this practice and that one looks appealing, as if these were goods in a supermarket. So, a very interesting question arises -- the traditional way, which looks too disciplined for the western mind, and the possibility of choice, which is a better way for the spiritual practice? For example, we were born in the West and we choose for ourselves, whereas in ancient India it was not possible -- if you were born in Śaiva family you would become a Śaiva, sometimes [another option] was possible but not on a common basis.
 
Hareesh: Well, in fact, it [converting to a different path than your parents'] was more common than you would think, and that's why in Shaivism there was an important ritual called the lingoddhāra ritual, designed for people converting from another faith. This was common enough that they made a special ritual for it and inflected that ritual depending on which faith a person was converting from; but the point is that you had made specific commitments in that faith, so there is a ritual to free you from that karma and to consecrate you into this new path. Certainly people were making choices, though of course the default, as you say, is to do whatever your father did -- he is Śaiva and that’s what you are, but as our sources imply, many people felt pulled from the path they were born in and many people did convert. Of course, when they chose, they chose a whole path -- it's not like how Americans choose, as you say this problem of "I'll take a little of this and a little of that" -- they chose a path and they gave themselves to it. And, as you say, the guru was absolutely crucial, because the beginner practitioner didn't know himself well enough to choose his own practice. I would say, if you are creating your own practice piecemeal out of what you read, hear and see, without the direct guidance of a master teacher -– very high chance of failure. It needs to be someone who sees with sharp vision your psychology, your weaknesses, and creates a practice that helps you and also challenges you. Helps you by challenging you.
 
I: Yes, because by choosing only things that are comfortable to you, you won't develop, you will stay in this comfortable state of mind for all your life, with all your mistakes and weaknesses.
 
H: Yes, and people [wrongly] think that the purpose of spirituality is just to make me feel better about life.
 
I: What I see here, in the US, the understanding of yoga is that people want to enjoy, so the practice is only for fun, it shouldn't be hard, it shouldn't transform you in an uncomfortable way. It should be a light and fun way of spending your time.
 
H: Well said. I would say this is the number one problem in practice of yoga in the West, that people think that the purpose of yoga is to feel good. All the original authorities agree that the purpose of yoga is to transform yourself into somebody who can see things as they really are, see yourself as who you really are, see reality as it really is. You discover that at the core you are divine, you are a manifestation of God, but in order to find that core you also have to see all the places in yourself that you are lying to yourself and inauthentic. Of course, that is painful -- transformation is challenging and painful. These people practicing yoga to feel good and have fun -- well that is fine unless they think it will bring them to full liberation and awakening. Then they are deluded. But if their goal is just to have fun then there is no problem. So, this is the Tantric attitude -- not to put down or condemn anyone's practice, instead it just tries to show when the practice is not aligned with the desired fruit. Any good teacher would ask you what you want and help you choose a practice that will lead to that. Because there is not this sort of normative way to think that everyone should want highest liberation, many people don't want that because they don't want to give up their comfort, their comfortable idea of themselves. In some other life they will realize that nothing but the final liberation will ultimately do it for me, and they will go for it. And if they are not ready for it, then the Tantric guru says fine, let them have some enjoyments with some pain and suffering, as long as you are clear on what you are choosing. Obviously, one that choses final liberation choses uncomfortable transformation to reach true joy, whereas the person who doesn't want to choose that prefers less challenge and also ultimately less happiness. And that's okay.
 
I: My next question is about the Yoga Sūtras and Tantric Yoga. It's a very interesting question, because Yoga Sutras is the most well-known [Sanskrit] scripture in the West and most of the people, including modern Indian teachers use this scripture as the main philosophical text of yoga tradition, even teachers of Haṭha Yoga, which is not described in Sutras. I've read that these are two completely different systems -- like yoga of Rishis and Munis is close to the Vedic tradition and Tantric yoga, which is different. I have doubts about this. There is an opinion that Sūtras is a dualistic text -- about division of Prakriti from Purusha and Tantric texts are about union. Do you think these are completely different traditions or merely two points of view on one subject?
 
H: This is a very important question that almost nobody [in the general public] understands the answer to, because of lack of research, lack of investigation of real evidence. First of all we have to note that the modern interest in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra is artificial in a certain sense and it comes from not realizing that the sources for modern yoga are to be found ultimately in Haṭhayoga and Tantric yoga. The practices of Haṭha Yoga and modern yoga (other than concentrative meditation) can't be found in the Yoga Sūtra, as you have pointed out, except for the brief mention of prāṇāyāma, whereas in Tantric texts we have a detailed description of many prāṇāyāmas. So if you look for the roots of modern practices it's Haṭhayoga type traditions and Tantric yoga before that -- but the problem is that by the time of the 19th century Tantra had an extremely bad reputation, because the original wisdom had been forgotten and Indians thought Tantra meant some kind of black magic and the British thought Tantra meant some kind of a weird sex and black magic. Nobody wanted to look at those texts, which are so numerous and so hard to read and they thought there is nothing valuable to read in them anyway. So, there is an artificial revival of Patañjali when modern practitioners looked for a scriptural authority in the 19th and 20th century, and this revival obscures what really happened historically.


What happened was this - all of Patanjali's practices get adopted and developed further in Tantra. They clearly know his Aṣhṭānga Yoga, they cite his Aṣhṭānga Yoga, they discuss it and give much more elaborate instruction on it, as well as other practices that are not found in Patañjali, mainly visualization practices, subtle body practices and energy practices, that's what Tantra adds that is very different from Patañjali. But they incorporate all of Patañjali's work and they don`t incorporate his philosophy. Of course Tantra does incorporate the 25 tattvas (of Sānkhya), but that became part of a much more elaborate philosophical system, that is very different from Patañjali, focusing on unity. There is no duality not only in terms of spirit and matter (Purusha and Prakriti), because of course the Tantra says this matter is just a denser form of energy, which Einstein ended up proving -- so matter and energy are one and both are forms of spirit, a single divine consciousness in Tantra philosophy. So, what we find quoted in Tantra is always just Patañjali's practices, not his philosophy [and that not very often]. Result -- we get to the Haṭhayoga period and what is actually being taught in the times of Haṭhayoga is Patañjali`s eight limbs plus more, such as a 15-limb yoga, with the sources for the additional seven limbs being the tantras. Moreover, we can prove that people in the 16th-18th centuries didn't actually differentiate between Patañjali and Haṭhayoga (!), because we have sources from that time that say Patañjali`s yoga and Haṭhayoga are synonyms (e.g., Haṃsamiṭṭhu; see S. Vāsudeva's work on this). What I'm trying to say is that Patañjali does not survive at all as a separate school; nobody was preserving Patañjali's practices apart from the Tantra-influenced Haṭhayoga schools.
 
I: But could it be the case that Patañjali didn't even mean to establish a separate school but merely wrote a book on a subject.
 
H: Well, it's hard to say now, records are too early, but what we do have is a list of six ṣhaḍ-darśanas, including Sānkhya and Yoga.
 
I: But this ṣhaḍ-darśana list was created by Max Muller, some other darśanas could also be found.
 
H: Yes, we do find this ṣhaḍ-darśana list in original sources, but you are right to say that this was not a dominant theme before Max Muller. In sources of the 16th century (like the Sarva-darśana-sangraha) we find mentions of Pātañjala school, but what I'm trying to say is that it was preserved by historians but was no longer practiced as a separate school [after the medieval period]. Let me correct myself, of course there were a few lineages that still kind of preserved Patañjali's original dualistic spirit/matter separation and for example Swami Hariharānanda did this commentary on Yoga Sūtra in the early 20th century that was then published by SUNY press. He is a rare example of somebody interpreting Patañjali and Sānkhya with no tantric influence. My point is that in general all these practices and ideas were being interpreted under Tantric influence, even Vedānta came under tantric influence, this is how powerful Tantra was.
 
I: Of course, because Shankarāchārya himself was practicing Shrīvidyā, even now all Vedāntic Pithaks practice Shrīvidyā like personal sādhana.
 
H: There you go. So, what we find is Shrīvidyā colonizing Vedānta, but not the other way around, because in the classical Śaiva Tantric sources Shankara is never quoted, none of the Vedāntic masters are quoted approvingly, only one, if you call him a Vedāntin, and that is Bhartṛhari, a very early sort of proto-vedānta figure and him they quote approvingly. So, when we see Tantra appearing in later vedantic sources, but we don't see Vedanta appearing in any [classical] Tantric sources, then we know the direction of influence -- Tantra influencing Vedanta and not the other way around. It is very important to establish direction of influence. For example, this is another big topic, but we know that Tantric practices were borrowed by Buddhism from Shaivism and not vice versa, because we can see that pieces of Śaiva scriptures are borrowed and put into Buddhist scriptures and we can prove that that's the direction (for many reasons, such as mistakes introduced in the process of changing Śaiva proper names to Buddhist ones). Of course Shaivists took some philosophy from Buddhists, but all the tantric practice went this way -- from Shaivism to Buddhism. Only now we can prove this because Sanderson did the necessary textual studies to show this (e.g. History Through Textual Criticism and The Śaiva Age).


Back to the main point-- if it wasn't for misunderstandings about Tantra and the refusal to look closely and research Tantric sources, we wouldn't now have this strange situation of the artificial revival of Patañjali. Yes, in 'Ashtanga Yoga' [Pattabhi Jois] classes people pray and invoke Patañjali, but historically this is very strange, because if they want to look at the guru most influential on the modern yoga that should be Goraksha (aka Gorakh Nāth). Of course, there were many people contributing to this tradition, but if you must look to one man, who was most influential on our modern yoga -- Goraksha and his alleged guru Matsyendra, but Goraksha is the one who wrote it all down, not Matsyendra. And when you look beyond Goraksha you find Tantra, because Goraksha himself knew and practiced Tantric mantras and traditions. But what he saw around himself in the early 13th century was that the Muslims have come and conquered and there is no more funding which used to support [religious] institutions, universities, temples, many such things and Shaivism had developed this huge complex mantra system and complex yoga that needed scholars and experts to perpetuate it. So what Goraksha sees is that there is no way we are going to keep this complex religion going with no state support now that the Muslims have come. So, what does he create? And what I'm describing is an oversimplification of course, he along with others create Haṭhayoga, a simplified form of yogic practice leaving aside the complex mantra system [and more elaborate energy-body work], which they knew was going to be too complex for this new situation. So they took what they felt was the most essential practices and created this Haṭhayoga system, and a lot was lost of course. If you read Haṭhayoga texts and compare them to Tantric texts on yoga they are very simplified. But that is exactly what we would expect from the culture where there is no longer state support for the religion -- simplify or else it's going to die out. So, this is what I describe in my book: Tantra influences Haṭhayoga which influences modern yoga. There is a lot of work to be done, but we can trace out the general progression. Why is it so important? Because people if understand this, they will look to the Tantric texts and to the older Haṭhayoga texts [now being translated by Mallinson and Birch] for information that has been lost, whereas if they think that Patañjali is the guru of our yoga, then they will just keep looking at Yoga Sūtra, which is crazy, because there is so much that's just not there. We have over a hundred translations of Yoga Sūtra in English (!) and we have almost no translations of Tantric sources, maybe half a dozen that are readable and accurate. That's why I think that this historical understanding must become widespread, so that the attention starts going to where the practices really are -- untranslated Tantric sources.
 
I: That`s interesting that among the Indian yoga teachers, who spread Haṭhayoga in the West no one belonged to Nāth Sampradāya - Krishnamāchārya was from Shrī Vaishnava Sampradāya, Śivānanda and Satyānanda belonged to [Dasnāmī] Sarasvati order (Advaita Vedānta) etc. A few years ago I was searching around India but Nāth 'yogis' don`t seem to practice Haṭhayoga anymore.
 
I: No, they don't and this is very important that you know this, because in fact the Nāths have not been practicing Hatha Yoga for almost 500 years. Do you know James Mallinson? He is a very important scholar of Haṭhayoga, because he not only reads Sanskrit well, but he has lived with yogīs, sādhus and nāga bābās in India for many years, so he sees the current reality and he also reads the ancient texts. He shows that for some reason Nāths stopped practicing real yoga and they are now called Jogis, which is just like a caste name, they don't practice yoga. Who preserved the yoga practices? Some yoga practices were preserved by Dasnāmī Sannyāsīs, some by Shrī Vaishnavas and especially by the Rāmānandīs. That is where we look for the preservation of these practices. When the Dasnāmī orders became more and more dominant and powerful [in the premodern period], if you wanted to be a full time practitioner you became a sarasvatī or a giri or a bharati or whatever. The thing is that those Dasnāmīs are renunciates, so this obscures the fact that the original Tantric tradition was NOT practiced be renunciates, but mostly by householders. And it would still be practiced by householders except the economic reality is who is going to support [the highly educated full-time Tantric āchāryas that would be necessary for that]. Before there was a lot of support for that but in the past several hundred years you had to become a renunciate, because then you can get some support, whether from begging your food or from organizations for Sarasvatī orders or other orders.

Concluded in PART THREE