Development of Haṭhayoga in Late-Medieval South India

October 19, 2016
Development of Haṭhayoga in Late-Medieval South India

On Wednesday, October 19, CSWR resident and PhD Candidate in South Asian Religions, Seth Powell, presented "Visual and Material Evidence for the Development of Haṭhayoga in Late-Medieval South India." Seth demonstrated evidence from his recent field work in the south-Indian state of Karnataka, where he has discovered the presence of several unique sculpted figures of ascetics performing complex yogic postures (āsana) featured on the pillars of many of the major temple complexes at Hampi, the former capital city of the Vijayanagara empire.

Picture of sculpted figure in complex yogic posture

The pillared reliefs at Hampi are striking for a number of important reasons. The first, being the complexity and level of difficulty of the depicted āsanas, which include: standing postures, inversions, and unique "pretzel-shaped" balancing postures. These sculpted figures, which based on inscriptional evidence, can be dated to the early 1500s CE, present us with exciting new evidence for the history and development of physical yoga traditions in pre-modern India. Moreover, as Seth noted, a number of images bear a marked similarity to certain non-seated āsanas featured in more modern postural yoga systems, and might represent some of the earliest evidence of their existence–visual, textual, or otherwise. 

As Seth emphasized in his talk, while our knowledge of the techniques and traditions of Haṭhayoga has advanced considerably over the past decade, thanks in large part to the scholars at the SOAS Haṭha Yoga Project, our understanding of the history and development of medieval yoga traditions still remains in its infancy. Much of this history is currently being reconstructed using the philological methods of textual criticism, that is, through the detailed study of prescriptive Sanskrit yoga texts. And yet, the turn to visual and material culture can also provide us with an incredibly rich body of evidence that can complement the textual record–and perhaps, even provide alternative historical models for understanding the development of Indic yogic traditions. The relationship between the textual and visual record is not always clear or linear, however, when read together, Seth believes can provide us with a more holistic understanding of yoga's past. 

Seth is planning to publish his findings in a forthcoming article. 

—by Seth D. Powell, PhD Student, South Asian Religions, Harvard University