Yoga comes from an unbroken Indian tradition that finds earliest mention in the Vedic or Agamic philosophies of Upanishads, Bhagvat Geeta and Mahabharat though the most unambiguous source of Yogic principles is the well-known seminal work by Patanjali, the Yoga Sutras.
However, what these scriptures describe is today known as ‘Classical Yoga’ which considerably differs from how we today perceive Yoga. Traditional Vedic philosophies fall under the purview of what is known as ‘Nigama’. In conjunction with these older texts, ancient India had also developed the non-Vedic scriptures collectively termed ‘Agama’.
Modern Yoga contains a lot of contributions from the Agama texts. While the Vedas continue to provide the basic philosophy of all rituals and beliefs of Hinduism, it is the Sanskrit and Tamil Agamas that provide more practical advice. The word ‘Agama’ refers to precepts and doctrines that have been handed down, perhaps referring to the Guru-shishya tradition, and cover topics ranging from the construction of temples to worship involving Mantras, Yantras and Tantra. They include the 28 Shaiva Agamas, 77 Shakta Agamas/Tantras, and 108 Vaishnava Agamas.
How does the concept of Yoga differ in these scriptures from what is mentioned in the classical literature? Well, for starters, while the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali mention bodily practices and breathing exercises, their chief concern remains the realization of man’s true Self. The Agamic texts, on the other hand, give emphasis to the transformation of the body from a gross physical structure to a divine entity. Instead of discarding matter, Tantra focuses on how it can be transformed from something mundane into something divine.
For example, one of the Pancharatra of the Vaishnav Agamas, known as the Jayakhya Samhita, talks about bhuta-shuddhi, or the purification of material elements within the body prior to the installation of the deity within it. This is a very different approach from the earlier texts pertaining to Yoga, where getting rid of the material body and union of soul (atma) with the super-soul (Parmatma) was the primary focus.
Similarly, Shaivite and Shakta Agamas talk about the concept of latent kundalini energy that lies at the base of the spine like a coiled serpent. From the viewpoint of Yoga, this is a very important concept since the asanas and meditation followed by a practitioner are supposed to ultimately awaken this latent energy and cause its arousal within what are known as the chakras.
Anyone who knows even a little about Yoga has generally heard of the concept of the ‘seven chakras’ that this energy is supposed to traverse before leading to complete enlightenment. Scientifically, these chakras may actually relate to the neuro-endocrine system of the body and this is a probable co-relation between the two:
- Sahasraar Chakra – Pituitary gland that regulates the entire Endocrine system
- Agnya Chakra – Pineal gland that regulates sleep-wakefulness cycle
- Vishuddha Chakra – Thyroid gland responsible for growth and maturation
- Anahat Chakra – Thymus gland helpful in fending off disease
- Manipur Chakra – Pancreas, that help in digestion
- Svadhishthaan Chakra – Sexual glands
- Mool-aadhar Chakra – Accessory sexual glands like the prostate and Skene’s glands
The sexual connotations of Tantra may also come from this very concept where a stimulation of the sexual glands located at the Mool-aadhar chakra releases the fluids required at the time of sexual union. The idea of male and female sexual fluids as substances imbued with power is dominant within Tantra. In some cases this view led to the practice of strict celibacy so that the male practitioner could avoid discharging semen and raise his potency up through the body. The practitioner could engage in sexual intercourse but would attempt to avoid discharge of semen which is the bindu or nucleus, the point from which all creation becomes manifest.
The life force or prana is believed to traverse within the body along three main nadis – the ida, connected to the left nostril, pingala, connected to the right and the central channel sushumna. When the awakened kundalini traversing through these channels finally reaches the sahasrara, the practitioner is supposed to achieve great psychical and spiritual powers. The raising of the kundalini to the top-most chakra also reflects the metaphysical union of Shiva and Shakti inside a sadhak’s body.
These are very important concepts of modern Tantrik yogic practices and it may not be too presumptuous to say that even the Hath-yoga texts are derived from Tantrik teachings. The opening verses of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika hint towards this association and the mention of the Maha-Mudra in later verses especially in relation to invigorating the kundalini energy is another case in point. Also, the Shiva Samhita, an authoritative work on Yoga is as much a work on Tantra and highlights the syncretistic development of the two concepts. The Gheranda Samhita also clearly mentions that the practices advocated in it are derived from Tantras.
Weighing up the evidence, it would appear that Tantrik texts have given a firm foundation to the principles of modern Yoga. The concepts of divinization of the body, kundalini energy, seven chakras and three nadis are the basic principles of Yoga as it is understood today. The concepts of establishment of deity within the body of a practitioner and utilization of sexual union as a symbolic representation of the union of Shiva and Shakti are also no less important though they may be followed today by the practitioners of Tantra proper rather than Hath-yoga.
Tantrik texts also redefine what is required to attain liberation, breaking the age-old concepts of purity and impurity. Actions or objects are not seen impure in themselves; rather it is the attitude of the practitioner which is the determinant factor. This is hard for the ordinary person to comprehend because for most people, things like sexual interaction are a result of physical or emotional attraction, either for progeny or pleasure.
Wrapping up the discussion, I would say that modern Yoga owes as much to the Tantrik or Agamic texts as it does to the Yoga Sutras and a modern practitioner of Yoga would do well to know the true significance of these concepts besides exploring the physical possibilities of the body. Perhaps, only then, would the true potential of Yoga be achieved.