Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Yogis, Ascetic, and Fakirs: Fascinating historical images of India that I don't pretend to understand

Searching through Google Images last night for pics to illustrate my latest post at Elephant Journal ("The Oprah-fication of Patanjali: Culturally Homogenizing the Yoga Sutra" - please check it out if you haven't yet!), I stumbled across an incredible web page full of historical photos and prints of Hindu fakirs and ascetics from the 1700s-1960s.

On further investigation, I figured out that this collection is part of a much larger set of online resources put together by Dr. Frances W. Pritchett at Columbia University. Given that there's nothing that says that these images can't be shared online, I figured that it would be OK to post some of them, along with some personal ruminations, here.

This print is labeled "'The Sunyasees,' by William Taylor of the Bengal Civil Service, 1842." While obviously a highly Europeanized rendition, there's something about the weirdness of English pastoral feeling infused into an illustration of Hindu mendicants smoking bhang in tiger skins that I really like. 

Many of the images are not so soothing, however. I find this one, labeled "An ascetic with his full traveling equipment: a photo by a soldier, World War II," full-stop arresting:

Note again the tiger skin. (An interesting article that briefly explains their significance, accompanied by an absolutely stunning late 19th century print, can be accessed here). 

I thought about using this photo in my EJ post, but somehow, in that overly loud and crass forum, I thought that it would be disrespectful. So I didn't post it there. But I did want to share it, because I find it quite powerful.

I feel that this is not an image that should be taken lightly. I don't know remotely enough about India and Hinduism to understand its significance, but that's precisely what I like about it. It really drives home the reality of cultural difference - as an American who's never even been to Asia, everything that's symbolized and represented here is completely foreign to my experience. 

And it blows my mind that it was taken during World War II. 


Here is another image that just stops me in my tracks. As you can read faintly under the photo, it's labeled "Hermit at Gem Lake doing penance--exposed to mid-day sun and intense fires--Mt. Abu, India. Copyright 1903 by Underwood & Underwood." 

1903 is really not all that long ago - heck, I had grandparents alive then. But there's something about this photo that feels to me very ancient. It conjures up something like the feelings I had as a young child back in Sunday School looking at photos of Jerusalem and hearing wild and sacred stories of men being swallowed by whales, floods almost destroying the earth, seas parting, the dead rising, casting out demons, and walking on water.

In other words, all of the cultural referents that were hard-wired into me at an early age were Judeo-Christian. This is not good or bad; it just is. But it is significant.

I can work to understand Hinduism, traditional yogic austerities, or whatever. But it's not encoded into my cultural DNA.

Even in today's highly globalized, mulit-culti world, I still feel very conscious of being a Westerner.

Here are two much more disturbing images. I would be lying if I didn't admit that they rouse up some rather stereotypically Western feelings of horror that such practices are considered worthy austerities.

Yet it's also true that this gut-level sense of repugnance is genuinely mixed with a feeling of wonder and respect for a religion and culture that I recognize that I really don't understand - at all. 

"An ascetic with a metal grid welded around his neck so that he can never lie down; photo, late 1800s."

"A photo by T. A. Rust, c.1880s, of an ascetic who constantly keeps his arms extended upward."

The next image is not so disturbing, but I think that there is something terribly poignant about it. I wonder who these men were - what their lives were like - how did they think about themselves and the world - and - what's the connection to someone like me?

I don't know even the beginning of the answers to any of these questions.

"Fakirs, Bombay," a photo by Taurines, c.1880s"

These next two photos illustrate the phenomena of yogis and fakirs turning into an odd sort of - not exactly tourist attraction, but perhaps exotic street performance. (Mark Singleton discusses this in his book, Yoga Body, in a section that I reference in my EJ post mentioned above.)

This "stereoscopic" presentation of a man lying on the classic "bed of nails" may conjure up odd associations for those of us old enough to remember the viewfinders that we may have had as children. For those who never had them or are too young to remember, these were binocular-like contraptions that you would put a double-imaged slide into in order to view images in 3-D. (Positively prehistoric technology by today's standards, to say the least! But I remember them well. I used to really be really excited to buy packs of viewfinder slides to look at on family vacations to Yellowstone and places like that.)

"Hindu devotee doing penance on a bed of spikes near the shrine of Kali, Calcutta"; a stereo view, c.1900"

However, needless to say, my childhood viewfinder slides never contained images like that . . .

The next photo gives me the sense that the ascetic pictured is engaged in some sort of street performance - there is something very posed feeling about it, with the trident on the left and the pillar with garlands and framed pictures in back. 

"An ascetic on a bed of nails, Calcutta, c.1920s"

This morphing from holy man to object of European "voyeuristic fascination" is also disturbing -- although, unlike the radical austerities pictured above, in a non-visceral way. But it makes me think of how some tribal peoples were violently opposed to being photographed by Westerners because they believed that the process stole something of their souls.

There is something compelling but almost indecently intrusive in the photographic gaze.

From Beds of Nails to Contemporary Yoga

Of course, we've all heard of the proverbial "bed of nails" - but I, at least, had never seen such photos of them before. (There are quite a few more posted on the same site.) And certainly, I'd never quite so directly connected the dots from them to anything that I think of as "yoga" prior to reflecting on these images. 

Which gets us into the whole "what is yoga" debate - which on the one hand is so fascinating, but on the other so difficult. Because it's impossible to give a single comprehensive answer. And, there's so many people that have such strong - and strongly differing - takes on it.

The most recent comment on my EJ post was from someone who was clearly irate because he felt that today's regular practice was once again being dissed. Which wasn't at all my intent - in fact, it's rather ironic, because I see myself as a passionate advocate of contemporary, syncretic, post-modern yoga. 

But I also respect people who take ancient texts and traditions seriously. Who devote themselves to trying to understand and engage in practices that have always remained quite foreign to mainstream American society. 

What bothers me (and this was the point of the EJ post) is blurring everything together so much that there's no sense that what we might be doing today - powerful, worthy, and wonderful as it may be - is essentially the same as what yogis were doing in India in the past. Muddling everything together in this way - which, it seems to me, is the default cultural perspective in at least a lot of the North American yoga community - strikes me as a tremendous loss.

Our world grows smaller to the extent that our capacity to recognize and respect cultural, religious, and yes, even spiritual difference shrinks. 

And I hate that. I want the world to remain big - open, diverse, and mysterious. I look at these photos and recognize how much I don't know. And I love that.

To me, this sort of not knowing feels like a gateway to an ever-expanding universe of possibilities.


  1. I'm not American, I'm not a Catholic either (heck, I'm an atheist!) but I too was raised with JudeoChristian values which pretty much mold the Western society we live in.

    I do acknowledge too that I don't understand what these images represent and encompass, as after all I am too a Westerner.

    There would be so much to say about these and our representation of yoga and India, but I'm kind of still processing your post right now.
    I love that you posted those, it really is an open door to a world I have no idea about, that I don't know how to connect to, that makes me question my own connection to yoga. I might still not know what yoga is, but this feeds my thinking over what MY yoga is (don't know if that makes sense, but oh wel...).

  2. I have to say that as someone who is planning her 5th trip to India, it's not a good idea to look at India with a western mindset (and yes, I know that's hard for a westerner not to do!). The British made that mistake for a long time.....;)

    I was at the Kumbh Mela this year, an event where you would see some "freakish" and "repugnant" things done by the sadhus, those who look the same now as in those old photographs.

    I don't think I was ever at a place or event in my life that held so much joy.

  3. Hi Carol,

    I must say that I'm a bit unsure about how you can say that you're all for a syncretic approach on the one hand, and then express some dissatisfaction at what you call muddling, or blurring differences on the other. I'm not trying at all to find fault with your reasoning, but I'd like to understand how you make those 2 things fit together.

    Again, I certainly don't want to impose my a priori understanding, but it seems to me as if you believed your own particular mix or blend of cultural features is more acceptable, or more valuable, than that which you call the default cultural perspective. And then I wonder if this default is not more like an aggregate consequence of each of our own best guess at what is a good mix. If this were the case, the blurred picture could be hiding more actual differences rather than less, wouldn't you think? That would be cause for some hope, no?

  4. Ha ha, yes - good points. Let me try to be more clear.

    First - I think that what Mark Singleton talks about his book (to use as an easy reference point)is a syncretic approach that can for shorthand be referred to as "modern yoga." (Although he's not crazy about the term, I still find it useful.) Modern yoga involved democratizing hatha yoga to make it more accessible to ordinary people, connecting it with modern science, and generally being newly open to cross-cultural and particularly Western influences. (This is my own interpretation of his work combined with my wider reading - but it's not incompatible with Yoga Body either, I think.)

    Modern yoga was developed in India and exported to the US. The first generation of prominent American yoga teachers typically studied with Indian teachers and were therefore pretty closely connected to the larger yoga tradition, which of course is very diverse, but still I think can be distinguished as significantly less modernized, Westernized, and democratized than what come over here with (to take the two most prominent teachers) Iyengar and Jois. (And certainly from how their own students continued to work with and change the practice.)

    Today, we're in a new and unprecedented situation. That Indian connection is weakening - yoga is more "mainstream" than ever before - and while of course it can and will continue to evolve, I'm not so happy about the idea of complete pop culture assimilation.

    Because even though doing asana for exercise pure and simple is fine, modern yoga did and does include practices that take us a lot deeper. And that's something that I value, but see as ebbing away in American culture - not just in yoga but generally - look at the state of our politics, education, etc.

    That said, I do want to support anyone's blend of whatever if their practice is taking them deeper, bearing good fruit, and just helping change their lives for the better.

  5. New and unprecedented, yet mainstream... Should I understand that you like interesting paradoxes?

    But seriously, I guess the reason I was hooked mostly by this last part of your post is because it sounds like a tension that I myself have to deal with, and which applies also within Western thinking (and then to something like yoga as well, I suppose). The parallel I would draw here is with being all for democratic processes and equal respect for all on the one hand, and nonetheless feeling sort of a nostalgia for an era where excellence defined virtue. And the tension is mostly due to the fact that we wonder, I think, if a democratized (hence pop) world can really be excellent (or deep).

    Here's the 2 cents of a fan of economic thought, then. Adam Smith probably explained best the link between specialization and economic growth. But given that specialization is the condition through which we evolved on a global level, what else can we expect but a patchwork of all sorts of great things appearing, however, as if it was nothing but a sea of mediocrity. Clearly, being specialized as we are, being excellent at one thing requires us to remain mediocre at everything else, right? Then, when you look at the rest of the world through the lens of your own expertise, how can it not be disappointing, on average?

    In a way, I think I'm missing something in how you relate the modernized aspect versus the pop/superficial. Are these 2 dimensions linked in any essential way for you? I guess this is what I'm attempting to understand with my own intellectual references.

    Thanks for the food for thought.

  6. Yes, I love interesting paradoxes! Thrive on them.

    The conundrum about democracy that you state is very real. And I think that it can be linked to my thinking about yoga and how it's changing.

    Consider the process of democratization over time. At the time of the French and American Revolutions, the very idea was controversial, revolutionary. There were all sorts of established hierarchies that were culturally sanctioned - in terms of art, class, taste, religion, etc.

    Modernity continues to tear down tradition and hierarchy in the name of democracy and freedom. Fast forward to the 1960s. All sorts of previously sanctioned hierarchies are upended. Previously sanctioned ideals such as "excellence" and "virtue" are trashed.

    And there are many incredibly good and exciting things associated with this. But it comes at a price too.

    Today, the excitement of the modern project of emancipation from the shackles of tradition is gone. We are anxious about security, jobs, the environment, the future. And culturally, we have no common standards as to what's good, what's worthwhile, what's the meaning of life . . . :)

    Yoga provides an anchor for a lot of people. You don't have to believe anything - it's a concrete practice that has deeper results - IF the mental and breath work is synched with the asana practice.

    It's not training to reach Samadhi, but it's sure as hell healing for a lot of us.

    But, no cultural standards. So, with the increasing distance from our cultural guides from India (that generation of teachers getting very old, while new American-minted teachers become more popular), where are we?

    Is yoga to become a size 00 just as valuable as yoga to deepen spiritual realization? In a such a highly democratized culture, the answer often given is "yes."

    I disagree. I think that we need to connect to something more real and sustaining than pop culture. Since yoga is a modern technique for providing that, I want its deeper capacities to be recognized. But that requires discriminating between more and less valuable approaches, which is threatening and offensive to many. Not to mention very difficult to do well, because there is so much complexity and ambiguity.


  7. Not sure I'd quite agree with you on the lost excitement vs new anxieties theme.

    But what I do agree with is that a very interesting problem, both theoretically and existentially, is related to the cultural relativism that I think we need in order to feel free to choose how to make sense with and in our lives, versus the need for our moral/philosophical/spiritual anchors to feel like they're not entirely arbitrary. I agree this is a difficult problem, but I do hold dearly to the freedom part.

    I'm not sure at all that there can be an entirely satisfactory answer to this dilemma. Maybe there is some spiritual experience that allows to solve this for oneself, I don't know, but I don't see how a culture can solve this conundrum without reverting back to - at least what would seem as - an arbitrary elitism. Do you?

  8. Yes, our interests are very much in line here. It is such a big, interesting, and important question.

    Of course, we see that the rightist response to this situation is religious fundamentalism (and in the political arena, some sort of fascism). Set up a meaningful authority, and insist that no one question it.

    Culturally, of course we want to avoid this tendency spreading. But since the cultural grounds of authority have eroded tremendously over the course of the 20th century, we are in fact left with having to "solve this for oneself" in one way or another.

    This is precisely why I think that a lot of people find yoga and meditation so compelling today. We can't think our way out of the dilemma - whatever we decide to believe intellectually we feel compelled to relativize, as we know that so many other people believe differently (etc).

    Practices that you can do every day, that connect you to some deeper, intuitive, extra-rational sense of meaning, connection with life, and so on are extraordinary valuable in this context.

    Again, this is why I feel strongly that to overly relativize any sort of yoga teaching as equal is a mistake. At the very least, the teacher should have experienced the practice as taking him or her to something deeper than exercise, weight loss, nice abs, or whatever.

  9. Hi again,

    I'm sorry if I'm being too insistent here, but I do appreciate tremendously the tone and content of this conversation. I'll take a break after this one, I promise.

    Actually, I think our positions are really not that far apart. Maybe we simply attach our fears to different objects. You would fear that, in the absence of a clear enough picture of what is "real" yoga as opposed to the weight-loss gimmick, too many people might miss a valuable opportunity to do something worthwhile. This is a view that does not resonate as much with me, possibly because as a man, I don't feel the same social pressure about physical standards, but mostly because I think that, given enough choice, people should be held responsible for the meaning they want to give to their life. And I think there is enough choice, in part because there are many people like you, within our actual culture, who want to insist on the fact that there are sorts of practice that are intrinsically better than others, for a host of reasons.

    My own fear, on the other hand, is that we may forget that there are virtuous/vicious circles of freedom/unfreedom, and that when we allow ourselves to think that we have too much choice as a society, in the sense that there are too many inferior alternatives available (and much of the rejection of free markets hinges on that, but that's a question I won't bother you with, this time), then we start abandoning the toleration that is essential to our capacity to accept each other with all our differences. And to me, there is something truly wrong with that. But you don't seem to see this as a major difficulty, possibly because you don't see a link between discerning WHAT is good and discriminating WHO is good, possibly also because you think there are already way enough people like me, attempting to relativize everything and... let supply and demand decide.

    I'd say you want to defend the freedom to hold something sacred, and I want to defend the freedom to de-sacralize it. But isn't it in a way the exact same freedom? At the end of the day, I feel that not only are our views not that far apart, but they are quite complementary in an evolving, free society. It seems like a perfectly apt division of labor to me.


  10. Yes, I do like that. Nicely put. Thanks!

  11. India, a land of Joy, Freedom and Rituals, has derived alot from its VEDA's, and scriptures, which tell Indians of the astonishing past they had.

  12. Can you tell me where you obtained the photo of the "ascetic traveling with full equipment?" My friend has that same photo and believes his father took the picture when he was stationed in India during WWII.

    1. I got it on this site: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00routesdata/1800_1899/hinduism/ascetics/ascetics.html

      If you scroll all the way down to the second to last entry, the title and URL are listed. The source there is listed as "eBay, Jan. 2010."