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keerthik sasidharan

The Pregnant Text

The Pregnant Text

One of the magnificent collective vanities of the modern age is the idea of the ‘author’.  From the Norwegian writer Karl Knausgaard to the great Lewis Carrol, the romance of a singular figure of talent, if not genius, stooped over his writing desk, lost in his thoughts, summoning from within a comment or a paean about the human condition is hard to resist.  Creative writing programs across the Western world industrialize and monetize this elusive lure.  For much of human history however, the idea of a single ‘author’ of a text has been a suspect figure. 

The recensions of epics that have survived over millennia are associated with names – many of whom are often indistinguishable across generations.  Styles of writing, editorship or even the birth of a text itself  - that we unambiguously associate with a single name are often midwived by more than one creative mind.  The Greek bardic  tradition that we call Homeric, a word now endowed with mythic grandeur, and the ‘author’ Homer,  comes from a simpler word ‘Homeros’ which, rather anticlimactically, for the author of Gods and epochal cataclysms, merely means ‘he who fits things together’.  In its own way, this is perhaps apt.  Stories were like Lego pieces and the bard was merely he who fit them, no different than an itinerant master carpenter.  He collected tales, songs, allusions and creative ruptures; he refashioned them into a new being only to see them repurposed elsewhere.  Unlike Lego, however, it is often difficult to say whether there was an ur-story out of which, over time, many fragmentary narratives are born; or if the editor’s greatness lay in weaving together a narrative thread from these disparate tales to create a singular epic.  The many versions of the Ramayana is an example of this emergence from some ur-Ramayana; while the warp and wefts that make up the Shahnameh is an example of binding together many disparate tales. 

Closer to home in India, the author of the Mahabharata is usually referred to as Vyasa, a word that means ‘the editor’ or, less grandiloquently as merely ‘the collector’.  Per some traditions there are twenty eight Vyasas who put together the storehouse of Indian wisdom – from the abstruse to the folk.  To wit, unlike our times with a surplus of editors who work on a single book, the ancients or collective tradition sought to avoid confusion by marking the compiler of the Mahabharata in a more explicit manner as Krishna-Dwaipayana Veda Vyasa.  It is a moniker that identifies his color, his place of birth, his principal literary creation and his work-occupation: the dark-colored ‘editor’of the Vedas, who was born on an island.  The 'island born' in that name is a self-referential conceit, where in every time the Mahabharata's plot arrives at a cul de sac, Vyasa – like the hand of God - intervenes as a character and nudges the story along. 

The Mahabharata comes to us as tales told by a narrator or groups of them, who in turn heard it from the editor-writer’s disciple or son, who heard it from the editor, who in turn gleaned the tales from the Gods or others who witnessed the events.  The story comes to life, acquires shape and breathes life into a conception of the Self – solely through retelling.  So, by our times, we have Therukoothu instances where Krishna is bawdy, swears and curses, while a few miles away in a different social context of Kalakshepam, Krishna is a yogic master.  This vitality of diversity that informs retelling emerges from the architecture of the epic form which allows for capaciousness.  Any narrator, like a child in an empty house with secret passages, wanders and sees passageways and alleys.  The absence of a singular ‘author’ - immanent or transcendental - allows for meanderings.  It is forgiving of emendations and elisions.  Yet, while we may be ready to acknowledge such cross-pollinations within ones’ own religio-cultural complex - texts jump from Hindu to Jain and so on -  our conceptions of textual genesis usually stop at the doorstep of nationalism.  Rarely do we have well documented instances of how a text, like a pathogen, jumps across cultures to breathe life into new texts.   

On March 6th 2014, the esteemed New York Review of Books published an essay by the celebrated author-essayist William Dalrymple titled: “Under the Spell of Yoga”.  The early part of the essay surveys the changing presence of Yoga in Mughal consciousness.  This change occurs thanks to the rise of art, translations and mystical interest in Yoga by artisans, scholars and Muslim royalty.  Explaining the course of these cross-cultural practises, Dalrymple cites a text called Bahr al-Hayat (The Ocean of Life).  This is what he has to say:

It was during the reigns of the enquiring emperor Akbar and his son Salim that this interest took on a new urgency. Akbar had the Yoga Sutras and several other ancient Hindu texts on asceticism translated or summarized. His biographer Abul Fazl wrote with wonder about yogic asanas, remarking that “the writer of these pages, who has witnessed many of these postures, has gazed in astonishment, wondering how any human being could subject his muscles, tendons and bones in this manner to his will.”
In addition, a new work, Bahr al-Hayat (The Ocean of Life), was composed around 1550 by Muhammad Gwaliyari, a prominent Sufi shaykh who was close to Akbar’s court. He wanted his disciples to learn hatha yogic practices.* In the form that Salim commissioned it,The Ocean of Life constitutes the earliest-known treatise to contain a systematic series of images of yoga postures. Twenty-two different asanas—almost all seated postures designed to aid meditation—are examined. 

On reading the above paragraph, the impression I walked away with was that Bahr al-Hayat was the first of its kind – a ‘new’ work which documents yoga postures. The passage also implies that Bahr al-Hayat facilitated a different kind of intervention which transformed the pedagogical approach of yoga: it went from a unique set of techniques taught by a guru onto words and images on paper that allowed for reproduction in a ‘pre-mechanical’ age.  I had forgotten about this passage, till I recently saw a 1942 portrait of a "Konkani Madonna" by the little known master-artist from Goa called Angelo da Fonseca. I was struck by not just the "appropriation" of motifs, but a recasting of it for idea of the Madonna to survive on the Indian soil. It was then, I realized that perhaps Bahr al-Hayat was unlikely to be a new intervention by Akbar or his courts. The research works of Professors Carl W. Ernst, Simon Digby and S.A.A.Rizvi helped me understand the provenance and journeys of Bahr al-Hayat better.   

Far from being a “new” work that was “composed” in 1550, or being an Islamic text that studied Hindu gymnosophy , or being a Persian (the language of the Mughal courts) text on ‘yoga’ – the Bahr al-Hayat is a particular outcome of a complex transmission of a Sanskritic text  that began nearly 300 years earlier and underwent many iterations which borrowed influences from as far spread regions as Ottoman Istanbul to the yogashalas on the ghats of the Ganga.  It is a nice example of how texts traveled in the medieval world, often pregnant with their own future textual selves, in search of cultural contexts to midwife each subsequent generation.

The earliest antecedent of the Bahr-al Hayat that we know, which described yoga techniques is a text called the Amrtakunda, or The Pool of Nectar, which was translated into Persian early on in the 13th century (around 1210-1215). This was an era dominated by the overbearing presence of Alauddin Khilji and his Afghan-Turkic armies that repeatedly swept into, attacked, assimilated and began to govern India. Persian was a common language across generations of Turkic armies, particularly enough among the administrative elite.  The Persian versions of the The Pool of Nectar spoke about breathing exercises, the hatha yoga as was practiced by Nath yogis, tantra associated with the Kaula subsects and the worship of Goddess Kamakhya.  The result of this relationship between Amrtakunda and  Kamakhya in the area of Kamarupa (modern Assam) was that the text was also known, including in Persian, as a Kamarupabijaksha (The Kamarupa Seed Syllables). Sometime in the 15th century, the Persian text ended up being translated into Arabic by an unknown translator.

The scholar Carl W. Ernst speculates this person could have belonged to Ishraqi School (the Illuminationist) thanks to the nature of the Arabic translation. What is clear is that text wasn’t a direct translation, but rather a ‘reinterpretation’.  This Arabic version introduced the text to its primary readership – in the Arab world - by creatively using two different sources to motivate its contents and textual logic.  It relied, on one hand, the Gnostic Acts of Thomas’ “Hymn of the Pearl” for one parts, and also uses sections from a Persian ‘Illuminationist’ philosopher Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardy al-Maqtul’s treatise called ‘On the Reality of Love’.  The Arabic text that was born from this creative exegesis was called ‘Hawd ma al-Hayat’ (The Pool of the Water of Life).   The oldest recensions of the Hawd are no longer available to us; but many subsequent versions are still available. 

This ur-Arabic text, it seems, was pretty popular in medieval Arab lands. Ernst reports that “at least 45 copies” (written post 16th) are available in libraries around the world.  With regards to the original Arabic text however, there arose a question of legitimacy in Arab lands.  The text – through design or accident - was often misattributed to a Sufi mystic-teacher from Andalusia, Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-‘Arabi.  This wrongful attribution however had its advantages.  It found Muslim readers as this ‘author’ provided a certain ecclesiastical “authority”.  Its “Indian-ness” (if indeed, such a descriptor could be used) was effaced by vocabulary and some historical accident or subterfuge.  What scholars who study this text tell us is that the Arabic text was a masterful balancing act.  It tried to explain yoga/yogic principles to an Arab readership, who drew inspiration from philosophical salons of Istanbul, Baghdad and Aleppo rather than Varanasi or Assam, in a language and prose that resonated with them.  This Arab text (the surviving recessions) was an early “cross cultural” effort to write down the postures of yoga and the actual practice of the discipline.   

The text, with a certain historical irony, eventually returns to India as Arab-Persian interactions rise in 15th and 16th century.  When the Hawd (or the crypto- Kamarupabijaksha) does return to India, native Sufi masters like Nasir al-Din Mahmud ‘Chiragh-e-Dihli’ comment on the similarity between the ‘Arab’ text and the meditation practices observed in India.  It is unclear if they realized the text had traveled as much as it did.  By the 15th century, we also see a corpus of literature burgeon in the relatively young medieval language that we now call ‘Hindi’. In this new language, Chishti mystic called Sheikh Abd al-Quddus Gangohi wrote couplets about yoga practiced as by the Nath yogins.  The textualization of yoga was well underway. Perhaps, in an native effort to communicate this ‘foreign’ text in Arabic to the locals, Gangohi taught the ‘Hawd ma al-Hayat’ to his disciples.   It is useful to note that the Arabic recension of Hawd that was extant in India in 15th century was a result of an unknown translator and a yogi called Ambhunath. 

It was around this same time, another Sufi sub-order called the Shattars emerged from the prominent Naqshbandi order.  They actively explored techniques of meditation and claims of metempsychosis.  The Shattari order had originated in Persia in 15th century.  The founder of that order the Sheikh Abdullah Shattar had settled in India and his disciples spanned from the eastern city of Patna to the western state of Gujarat.  An Indian Shattari master called Sheikh Muhammad Ghawth Gwaliyari translates the Hawd back into Persian.  This text is called the ‘Bahr al-Hayat’ (The Ocean of Life) which Mr. Dalrymple had mentioned in his NYRB essay. 

Not so surprisingly, it is the Arabic language recensions of Hawd that is popular amongst Sufi orders like Sanusi, Mevlevi and Qadiri orders that span from North Africa to Sindh over the centuries.  The Persian version ‘Bahr al-Hayat’ doesn’t find much currency outside the Indian subcontinent.  In 1835, the Bahr al-Hayat was translated into Deccani Urdu by Hajji’ Abd al-Karim.  The fourth Arabic recension of ‘Hawd’ was translated into Ottoman Turkish by ‘Abd Allah Salahi Efendi (d. 1768).

In short, what we see is a text transform from:

…ur-text probably in Classical Sanskrit or Prakrit --> Sanskrit --> Persian --> Arabic --> Ottoman Turkic/Arabic --> [Hindi/Persian/Arabic]  --> Persian (Bahr al-Hayat)…

What one sees through this short narrative (I highly recommend reading The Islamization of Yoga in the "Amrtakunda" Translations by Carl W. Ernst in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Jul., 2003), pp. 199-226) is that texts transmit via redactions and translations. To pinpoint a particular date of “origin” is often fraught, not just with simplification, but also a certain kind of modern desire to impose narrative ‘order’.   Museums, magazines and commentators thrive on intelligibility; but this effort may come at a cost that elides deeper historical realities, much of which is not so easy to subsume in a popular essay. Part of this is the constraint of the medium and the disseminating tools we rely on. Part of it is also our impulse to tell biographically inflected histories.  What the above narrative also tells us is that languages impose their philosophical world views on texts, which progressively reduce the ‘Other’-ness of traditions so as to appeal to their native reader.  This should, in turn, offer caution to those who insist on the immaculate nature of their imagined pasts, but instead recognize the compromised nature of texts we consider sacrosanct. In its own way, it tells us of the importance of translations in a country as a heterogeneous as India.  Ideas proliferate only by miscegenation.  Those that survive unto today are only those ideas who have jumped from one cultural context to another, scrambled, rewritten itself and reemerged to continue living through our retellings.  True authorship, in the modern sense, is often a mirage when talking of medieval texts.  None of this, of course, simplifies our life, or tells us how we ought to read the past. What it does tell us is that the modes of knowledge production, the historical context and our extant fashions affect how we ‘read’ texts.  Perhaps this self-awareness is worth something.  If nothing else, this pre-knowledge of the interconnectedness of the past can be the seedbed out of which better knowledge about the present can emerge. []

The Island Of The Day Before

The Island Of The Day Before

An Ocean Inland

An Ocean Inland