“The senses in the felt body are naturally divine”
As embodied practitioners, we especially trade in a lot of “received truths” that were constructed within the last century or so, and which we are often groomed not to question. Though, one of the purposes of the Taming the Sensory Body was to point to the recent historical constructions of some of these truths, especially which rule our practices, my main purpose is to open the field, so to speak, to the plurality of voices; valid philosophical voices that may counter or even contradict the moralistic view of dance and yoga that has become popular today.
Even though I have been an ardent follower of the Yoga Sutras, it is refreshing for me to also hear a rather robust contrarian view in the Hamsavilasa, 18th century text, in which Hamsa, a Shakta, advises his partner-yogini, Hamsi – “My dear! Patanjali Yoga is nonsense since there is no spontaneity when something is mastered through force. An effortless, holistic, royal yoga has been taught by the wise” (The Transport of the Hamsas: A Sakta Raslila as Rajayoga in Eighteenth-Century Beneras, Somadeva Vasudeva, Yoga in Practice, edited by David Gordon White). Though Hamsa can be faulted for conflating Patanjali yoga with Hatha, the forceful component, it is nevertheless refreshing to hear of “royal yoga” or raja yoga as a practice of “ecstatic sensual rupture” as opposed to the rather staid Raja Yoga preached by Swami Vivekananda, who also happens to conflate the teachings and practices of Patanjali and Hatha yoga.
In the latter half of the course, Taming the Sensory Body, devoted more toward yoga, we viewed how the “staid” version of yoga has come to rule the roost. Against the backdrop of both Victorian morality and muscular Christianity that swept across both Protestant England and America in the latter half of the 19th century we viewed the moral and political climate in which “Hatha practice (and in particular asana) [became] taboo amongst the English speaking transnational gurus from Vivekananda onward, as they were at pains to present yoga to the world as the flower of Indian culture and Hindu religion.” (The Yoga Body, Mark Singleton) And what the ramifications of such rather blurred distancing between the pure and cerebral Patanjali school from the bizarre experimentations of Hatha by eccentric “Saiva ascetics and yoginis who exerted a lurid fascination on the European mind,” would have on yoga, Indian culture and the Hindu religion.
In contrast to the more popularised definition of yoga that heavily relies on the Bhagwad Gita’s idea of “purity” and considers the “conquering of one’s senses” as the criteria of yoga, it is reassuring to read the counter voice of the Hamsavilasa which offers not only “an acute philosophical polemic and invective against contemporary strands of moralizing reformist Hinduism”, but also serves as a text on “the fine arts, musicology, aesthesis, and the erotic”. As a dancer, this twining of aesthetics and the erotic into a spiritual embodied practice is not only of great interest but, it is also deeply satisfying.
In an age of philosophical blurring and vagueness that may lead to a condition of “never-knowing-enough”, textual backing is critical to substantiate and endorse a hunch that may emerge out of the bodily practice and which maybe at variance with the “truths” assigned to the practice. To me, the leeway that an alternative voice may open is critical to the health and reflexivity of the practice. In his deeply insightful article, A Horried Treehouse or a Charming City, Arindam Chakrabarti, introduces us to the Yogavasistha, a 10th century text, which in the form of a dialogue between the guru, Vasistha, and his royal disciple, Rama—who like Arjuna in the Bhagwad Gita, is inflicted by existential angst and “like a typical spiritual beginner . . . shows disgust at the body (kaya-jugupsa)” (Engaged Emancipation, edited by Arindam Chakrabarti and Christopher Key Chapple). Interestingly, here is a counter voice that comes from the inside, i.e. out of Advaita Vedanta. In this rather copious text, the guru “praises the body as a beautiful city where one is lucky to dwell for a period of time” and offers a string of body-celebratory metaphors that pretty much resemble the evocative free-associative imagery that may abound in abhinaya; images that float from the “lotus-like glimpses cast by the eyes, through the smile-flowers that blossom in the garden of the face, to the beautiful lady called “rational reflections on the Self” (atmacinta-varangana) who is roaming around under the trees of the pleasure garden on the mind.” These roaming images are not only sensuous but also amorous, filled with languor, ease and play of a sringara bhava.
Chakrabarti also offers us an equally encouraging insight into the creative genius of Abhinavagupta, who interprets the verse of the Bhagwad Gita, “One who consumes things given by the gods without giving offerings to them first, is a thief” by defining the senses as the gods inside our bodies, thus implying that, “if someone does not give the senses their due, such a person is a thief or a fraud.”
The aim of the course which is mainly directed towards practitioners, both dance and yoga, is to offer the possibility of licence and play that necessarily comes un-stoppered through the play between counter voices. It is the categorical-seriousness with which “purity” and “authenticity” have been advocated and inscribed into embodied practice over the last century that is problematic and oppressive. In my opinion, it is exactly this variety of constructed, acquired and heavily policed “seriousness” that is taming! And such seriousness emerges only in the absence of plural voices that can challenge, shake, and even deflate it.
I might still be an ardent follower of the Yoga Sutras, but it is plurality that I value way more to the supremacy of my text of choice. It is exactly this openness that will lend freshness to my text and will make me define and further subscribe to its specificities. With the morphing of a variety of schools of thought that prevailed in the subcontinent into one homogenous Hinduism, we have lost the taste, vitality and charge of specificities. Our tameness that I lament is also due to the vagueness that we seem to be progressively inheriting, because the ingesting of vagueness is self-defeating. Vagueness robs the somatic body of taste, intuition, desire, direction, clarity and power.
This course will be offered again in October – November 2020