By Graham Burns
The idea that yoga is Indian is, of course, taken for granted by almost everyone. And those who have studied the yoga traditions in more depth know of the close connections between the tradition known as haṭhayoga and Śaivism, particularly Tantric Śaivism. So the idea that the earliest known text to teach some of the important principles and practices of haṭhayoga originated not in Tantric Śaivism, but rather in a Buddhist milieu, is guaranteed to disturb the pre-conceptions of many students and scholars of yoga.
Yet, that is exactly the argument put forward by James Mallinson in an extremely well attended, and live streamed, first session of the Sanskrit Reading Room of 2017/18. Dr. Mallinson’s radical conclusion comes after years of study of a text called the Amṛtasiddhi, an influential text, many of whose verses have found their way more or less verbatim into later texts on haṭhayoga. Although modern manuscripts of the Amṛtasiddhi do indeed suggest that it was composed in a Śaivite milieu, the discovery in the China Nationalities Library in Beijing of a manuscript of the text, dated, according to its colophon, to 1160 CE, cast doubt on this ‘traditional’ attribution to the Śaivite traditions. This dating, if accurate, puts the Amṛtasiddhi earlier than any other known text to teach techniques of haṭhayoga, even if the term haṭhayoga does not itself appear in it.
Although the Amṛtasiddhi was composed in India by Tantric Buddhists, the text was later transliterated and translated into Tibetan, and it is from the bilingual manuscript that the team were able to deduce that it had, most likely, been written by Buddhists. The manuscript discovered in Beijing contained the text of the Amṛtasiddhi not just in Sanskrit, but also transliterated into one Tibetan script and translated into another. Dr. Mallinson’s reading of the manuscript with Tantric Buddhism scholar Dr. Péter-Dániel Szántό from Oxford University revealed that the Amṛtasiddhi uses numerous examples of technical terms of art from Tantric Buddhism, suggesting strongly that its origins lay in that tradition, albeit with what Dr. Mallinson described as ‘pretty eccentric’ Tantric Buddhists, who used the text to pit themselves against certain better known Tantric Buddhist traditions.
Our reading focussed on two parts of the Amṛtasiddhi: Chapter 7, the Bindudhāraṇaviveka, and Chapter 11, the Mahāmudrāviveka. The first ten Chapters of the text explain the workings of the ‘yogic body’, and Chapter 7 introduces the idea of a single ‘seed’ (bījam ekam), a little later in the Chapter called bindu, as the fundamental essence of the whole of existence. This seed is identified with Sadāśiva, one of the highest forms of Śiva in Śaivite Tantra, as well as with the moon, and with other exotic substances such as mada, ‘the fluid that flows from elephants’ temples when they are in rut’ (Mallinson and Singleton 2017:492 n.57). Chapter 7 makes clear that control of the bindu is brought about by control of the breath, which, in turn, leads to the very yogic goal of control of the mind, and Chapter 7.7 introduces terms from alchemy to refer to this control: if bindu is mūrcchita (stunned) it removes disease, if baddha (bound) it can make one a ‘sky-rover’ (khecara), perhaps here suggesting that the practitioner can actually fly. (In passing, many years ago I encountered a Tibetan Buddhist monk in Ladakh who recounted his ability to fly as if it were the most matter of fact accomplishment – maybe he had succeeded in ‘binding’ his bindu.)
The reference to Sadāśiva in Chapter 7.2, and other Śaivite references in the Amṛtasiddhi, led to a debate about the text’s Buddhist origins, for it would clearly have been unusual for a Buddhist text to give Śiva such prominence. Dr. Szántό, who was present at the reading, agreed that this was unusual, and suggested that the text was most likely composed for a Śaivite Tantric audience, but that, nevertheless, the extensive use of Tantric Buddhist terminology suggested that that milieu had been the text’s original starting point. As an example, Chapter 7.4 refers to ānandā viramāntāḥ (‘the [four] blisses ending in [the bliss of] cessation’), a term with no technical meaning in a non-Buddhist context, but with a clear meaning in Tantric Buddhism as the fourth and final level of ‘bliss’ in Tantric sexual ritual.
Although the Amṛtasiddhi does not itself teach Tantric sexual rituals, this association may also find reflection in the somewhat mysterious idea of ‘male’ and ‘female’ bindu, introduced in Chapter 7.8. While male bindu is easily identified as semen, the identity of the female seed, rajas, is more uncertain, though it was noted by one reader that the ancient Greek medical tradition sometimes referred to both male and female ‘seeds’. Although rajas is described as red, possibly suggesting menstrual fluid, it is also said to unite with the male bindu externally in the act of procreation, while uniting the two internally is said to be the ‘highest dharma and the best yoga’ (7.13: paro dharma… yogaḥ paro mataḥ). The male bindu is said to be ‘lunar’ and the female ‘solar’, making this reference to their inner union a possible precursor of the later popular notion that the term haṭhayoga itself refers to some form of ‘uniting’ of ‘solar’ and ‘lunar’ energies in the body.
Chapter 7 closes by re-emphasising the relationship of bindu, breath and mind, while Chapter 11, by contrast, discusses one of the most important methods of achieving the control of bindu. This is the practice of mahāmudrā, a yogic practice which finds its way into later texts of haṭhayoga, and one which is still reasonably well known and widely practised in contemporary yoga. Mahāmudrā (the ‘great seal’) is another well-known Tantric Buddhist term, even if there meaning something somewhat different to the practice described in the Amṛtasiddhi, and Dr. Szántό noted that this section of the Amṛtasiddhi had appeared in an even older Tibetan text. Conversely, as Dr. Mallinson pointed out, mahāmudrā was an unknown term in Śaivite circles before this text.
The practice of mahāmudrā is explicitly said to hold bindu, in turn leading to control of body, speech and mind (11.7: kāyavākcittasādhanam, again an unusual triad in Śaivite texts but a common one in Tantric Buddhism). The method of practice, as described in the text, is perhaps better shown in illustration, as in these images (the first from a manuscript of the 18th century Jogpradīpakā and the second of the famous 20th century yogi Tirumalai Krishnamacarya).
However, for those of us who practise mahāmudrā regularly, the text’s instruction to ‘raise the buttocks onto a seat’ (11.4: āsane kaṭim āropya) while the heel is pressed into the perineum (11.3: yoniṃ saṃpīḍya vāmena pādamūlena) caused some confusion.
Ultimately, the very practice of mahāmudrā, according to the Amṛtasiddhi, stops death (11.10: anayā bādhyate mṛtyor…), and its description also brought the first, fascinating, session of the Sanskrit Reading Room for 2017/18 to a close.
Graham Burns is a final-year doctoral researcher at SOAS.
Forthcoming (2018). “The Amṛtasiddhi: Haṭhayoga’s Tantric Buddhist Source Text.” In Śaivism and the Tantric Traditions: A Festschrift for Alexis Sanderson, ed. Dominic Goodall, Shaman Hatley & Harunaga Isaacson. Leiden: Brill. academia.edu: https://www.academia.edu/26700528/The_Amṛtasiddhi_Haṭhayogas_Tantric_Buddhist_Source_Text
Mallinson, James and Singleton, Mark 2017 Roots of Yoga London: Penguin Random House
Image 1 (Amṛtasiddhi manuscript): China Nationalities Library of the Cultural Palace of Nationalities MS 005125 (21).
Image 2: British Library Add. 24099 Jogpradīpakā āsana No. 19
Image 3: Source unknown